High Line's New Director Wants Park to Serve Locals Before Tourists

By Mathew Katz on May 7, 2014 6:40am 

 Jenny Gersten took over as executive director of Friends of the High Line in January.
Jenny Gersten took over as executive director of Friends of the High Line in January.
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Friends of the High Line

CHELSEA — The High Line has become an international tourist destination — but its new director wants to return the park's focus to the local community.

Jenny Gersten, who took over as executive director of Friends of the High Line in January, said the elevated park's top priority should be serving its neighborhood, even as its popularity has made it a playground for tourists.

"How can the High Line be a community resource and how can we leverage our presence in the area to help our neighbors, who were so helpful to us as we started? That's a big question for us," Gersten said in an interview this week with DNAinfo New York.

"We don't endeavor to attract more international tourists — they just naturally come because it's become a phenomenon way beyond anything anyone ever envisioned," she continued. "Our main priority is to the neighborhood and the community, and we're interested in seeing how we can serve them either on the High Line or off the High Line."

Gersten, 45, who grew up just blocks from the park and now lives with her family on the Upper West Side, has already been making an effort to be visible in the neighborhood by attending monthly meetings of Community Board 4.

She said she aims to build Friends of the High Line's programs for teens. The park already employs 34 teenagers who either live or go to school near the park in a variety of part-time jobs, including its Green Corps, which helps maintain the park's greenery, and a Teen Arts Council, which runs annual cultural events at the park.

Friends of the High Line commissioned a survey of hundreds of people living in Chelsea's main public housing developments, the Fulton Houses and the Chelsea-Elliot Houses, to develop programming that suits their needs.

And under Gersten, Friends of the High Line has worked with the Parks Department to repair an elevator at the park's West 23rd Street entrance, which was damaged by flooding during Hurricane Sandy. The elevator should reopen by early July, Gersten said.

"To me, it's the most important part of our identity — it's how we can show we are genuinely interested in being community members," she said. "The community roots that [High Line founders Joshua David and Robert Hammond] started are the things that are at the heart of who we are. I'm interested in seeing if there's a way for us to get back to those as much as we continue to draw so many visitors every year."

On the park's horizon is the opening of its third section in the fall, which will have landscaped areas with benches, a children's play area and some "wild" parkland looping around the Hudson Yards construction site.

"We're leaving half of the walkway in this wild, self-seeded state for people to get a sense of for the next five or 10 years," Gersten said, "and then eventually we're going to have to go back into that section and do all of the preservation work required in order to keep the structure sound."

The new section will have a host of new food vendors, Gersten said, building on the popularity of vendors near Chelsea Market. 

Gersten, who previously served as artistic director at the Williamstown Theater Festival, said the two jobs had some overlap, and that she hoped to continue to build new experiences for visitors to the park.

"Every time I go up there, I have a different kind of live interaction — that's very similar to theater, it's just a little more contained," she said. "I think what we're interested in is that for every person who comes back to the High Line, what do we layer onto that experience? How do we add to it?"

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