Artist and non-profit consultant Robert Hammond was just another resident of Manhattan’s West Village when he met Joshua David at a meeting about a derelict piece of a former railway line. Together, they founded Friends of the High Line, which would eventually oversee the creation of one of New York City’s most beloved public spaces. Mr. Hammond is the keynote speaker at the Toronto Park Summit, at the Evergreen Brick Works, hosted by Toronto Park People.
Have you been to Toronto before?
No, it’s my first time, but I’m really interested in Jane Jacobs so I’m excited to see the city that she left New York for. Sadly, I arrive on Friday and leave Sunday. It’s a busy time for us because we’re trying to start construction on section two [of the High Line]
You’re speaking to Park People, which is an umbrella organization for “Friends of” groups across the city. Do you believe this kind of group can have an impact?
To me, they make all the difference. You always have to partner with the city or government agencies, but to me what’s most interesting is when people get together to try and create change from a base level. The end result often has more soul. It might take longer, but ultimately the results are more interesting when they come from real people.
And it has more resonance. No one can say a project just happened because the city has tons of cash or a progressive government.
One of the interesting things with the High Line’s success now is that people don’t see how it’s relevant to them, if they’re doing something small or they’re not in New York. Josh [David]and I get all this credit but the most important thing we did was just start the project. And then other people came along with the money and all the expertise. We were experts in nothing. In some ways that’s the key to its success.
You guys met at a community board meeting, right?
Yeah, in the summer of 1999. It’s coming up on 13 years ago.
I love it that it’s not necessarily the person behind the podium, but the guy sitting next to you who can be the catalyst for change. What advice do you two usually give?
Just start the projects. People will say you have to have a very specific vision, but I don’t think that’s true. I think a vision can come together over time. If Josh and I had had a very specific vision for the High Line, I’m not sure we would have been successful because it would have been just our vision. We just said, “It’s a mile and a half of Manhattan, let’s see if we can do something with it before we just tear it down.” We weren’t even sure it should be a park, we thought maybe it should be light rail. There were a whole bunch of different things it could have been.
One of the great things about the High Line is that it’s changed what people think of as park space.
To me, it’s all in the history. It’s always a mistake to just think of things as parks projects because that limits it and people think, “Oh, [these are]the usual suspects who are interested in parks.” What’s really interesting is thinking of projects that combine art, preservation, all of these different pieces together into one thing. One of the things people first fell in love with was all the archival pictures of the old High Line.
There’s much debate here about how to revitalize our Port Lands. What do you think of the idea of rebirth via mega malls, casinos and Ferris wheels?
Just because a Ferris wheel worked somewhere else, it doesn’t necessarily translate. Someone came to me with the idea of this festival marketplace in Newark [N.J.]to try and rejuvenate the neighbourhood. And to me it just didn’t have any heart or soul to it. It had no bearing on that location. What really makes things work is when there’s a connection to that space that makes sense. Sometimes it’s better when there are a lot of problems with the space, like old buildings or usage issues. You often find the real beauty in the work-around solutions.
How much does a supportive government matter?
It’s critical. A lot of us have to fight city hall for a while, but ultimately you have to work with them. At some point you have to create a partnership and it involves a lot of give and take and compromise.
The High Line had public and private funding?
It was a combination of public and private to build and we pay for 100 per cent of the maintenance cost.
Did the fact that it’s not an on-going burden on the taxpayer help make it palatable?
A lot of generous people are coming forward and offering up cash to save some of our urban zoos and farms that are on the chopping block because of city budget issues. Do you think private money is the answer?
I like finding new ways to solve problems. You can’t get anything done unless you’re comfortable solving problems. It’s part of the deal.
Last year, Park People’s guest speaker was Tupper Thomas , from Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. It’s interesting that New York City is becoming known for its green space.
I think it’s because New York needs them so much. We need that escape. One of the reasons the High Line is successful is that it’s an escape from the city but it’s still totally a part of the city. You can hear the traffic.
What do most people ask you?
They just want encouragement. People figure out how they’re going to do it, but it can be so daunting. That’s where I’m most helpful.
It's fantastic that we live in a time when people are so engaged on the municipal level.
In some ways I give 9/11 credit for making people interested in urban planning. At least in New York, all of a sudden you had things in the New York Post debating whether you should have streets through super blocks. It’s no longer considered wonky. People love it and that makes our jobs much easier because you have a much larger base of appeal.
A story about you on the website Gawker included the line, “Marry us, Robert Hammond.”
I didn’t see that. I have a boyfriend but I still like marriage proposals.
This interview has been condensed and edited.