Exploring the High Line

A two-year award from the National Science Foundation gives Julian Brash, an anthropology professor, the opportunity to study the functions of urban, post-industrial public space by focusing on Manhattan’s High Line, a “rail to trails” park that is both celebrated and criticized for its repurposing of an abandoned elevated railroad track.

“There has yet to be a study that really places the park, its users and its uses under an analytical microscope,” Brash says. “Cities like New York are increasingly unequal and dominated by the power of wealth. I want to understand how ‘public’ the High Line really is.”

By exploring who uses the High Line and how they use it, Brash hopes to determine if the park is predominantly a tourist space or a community space.

“Once we understand this, we can make nuanced, empirically based judgments as to whether or not it is a ‘good’ model of a democratic urban public space that is accessible to all, for cultural, social and political interaction,” he explains. Brash will also consider how longtime neighborhood residents and businesses, as well as newcomers and tourists who are attracted by the park and the redevelopment it has sparked, regard the park. 

So far, Brash has been busy with preliminary research and logistical planning for the data gathering effort that will begin in 2015. He will hire three student research assistants to help with fieldwork and the collection of historical and secondary-source data.

“I’m excited to be able to have students engage in this work,” he says.