Atlantic Cities

How Rust Became the New Urban Luxury Item

How Rust Became the New Urban Luxury Item
Sarah Goodyear

For a few hours last weekend, the last untouched section of the High Line railway on Manhattan’s West Side was open to members of the public who had signed up in advance and paid a small fee. This used to be a secret place that you would sneak into, if you were a bum, or an urban daredevil, or just someone who was lucky enough to know someone else who knew where a hole in the fence was.

Now, entry was by reservation only, and spots had been snapped up quickly. While the usual crowds jammed the manicured sections of the celebrated High Line park to the south, a relatively small group was admitted onto the elevated tracks to the north to see them in their naturally unnatural state.

Those of us lucky enough to get in strolled through hip-high goldenrod and lingered to look at graffiti, as people outside the chain-link fence gazed in at us wistfully. We picked our way over the rusted rails and around the broken glass. Lots of people, including me, stopped to take pictures of the crab apples that were hanging from a few scraggly trees. We paused to admire a still-intact railway switch lever, a most impressive remnant of the High Line’s working life, when milk, meat, and produce rumbled in freight cars along its tracks to feed the people of the city.

All that came to an end in the 1980s, and the line would probably have been demolished if not for the vision of a few neighborhood residents, who saw that what had been a neglected urban wasteland could be something else. Their idea captured the fancy of some people with money to spend, and the High Line park has attracted 10 million visitors since it opened in 2009.

This final half-mile section of track, known as High Line at the Rail Yards, is scheduled to open to the public in 2014, after a $90 million renovation funded by private and public money. It will have a lot in common with the part of the park that is already open, drawing crowds of tourists from around the world and inspiring lots of municipal leaders to say, “We want our own High Line!” There will be a playground for kids, and cleverly designed seating, and carefully tended plantings. A huge new residential and retail development called Hudson Yards will grow up alongside it.


Photos by Sarah Goodyear

Some people will rejoice, and others will gripe. The High Line has become a magnet for praise and derision, a symbol of everything that is wonderful about urban design to some and an emblem of squandered privilege to others.

I asked one of the volunteers stationed along the weed-choked path whether anyone was saying they wished that people would just leave this part of it alone and let it remain the way it is – simultaneously an example of decay, in the form of rotting rail ties and oxidizing metal, and rebirth, where native and invasive flowers and grasses insist on growing and thriving and covering over the things we have built.

“Well, some people do say that,” the woman in the High Line T-shirt told me. “But it wouldn’t be walkable if we left it like this!”

She was right, of course. It wouldn’t be safe to let people roam about this abandoned landscape. Sooner or later, someone would trip, someone would fall, someone would sue. On this special occasion, we had all been required to sign liability waivers before we were permitted through the gate. That was just before we were asked to sign up with Uniqlo – the tour’s corporate sponsor – so we could receive a gift from the giant clothing retailer. (The reward turned out to be a nice tote bag and a “HeatTech” T-shirt. Full disclosure: I took them both home.)

But everyone knows that the ghost of urban decay is as crucial to the High Line’s appeal as fancy design, if not more so. And so, when the final section opens, there will be “an interim walkway wending through the existing landscape of self-seeded wildflowers, native grasses, and shrubs,” according to the press release. People will be able to gaze out on a vestige of what inspired the whole High Line project to begin with. This patch of entropy will be a ragtag object of curiosity in an otherwise well-groomed setting, the last buffalo on the urban prairie, to be regarded with fond nostalgia.


Photo by Sarah Goodyear

The next day, across town, I stood in the shadow of Brooklyn’s new Barclays Center, waiting to see the Harlem Globetrotters (the line for will-call tickets was two hours long, but that’s another complaint). The arena is clad in weathered steel, a choice that has charmed some but mystified others.

I happen to like the way the Barclays Center looks, but then again, I am the kind of person who enjoys walking along old train tracks and avoiding broken glass to get a look at a wild crab apple. Although I would have liked it better if I had found my way there on my own, rather than on an officially sanctioned "self-guided tour."

In the wealthier parts of New York – in the High Line’s remodeled Chelsea, and at this new arena in downtown Brooklyn, where Jay-Z and the NBA are coming out to play – rust has become fashionable. It’s a sign of street cred, kind of like the pre-fab holes in a pair of $500 designer jeans.

Not everyone has gotten the memo. "With that rust, it looks like somewhere they put people after they declare martial law," one local resident is quoted as saying about the Barclays Center in Mark Jacobson’s fine New York magazine article about the disconnect between the old and the new Brooklyns.

That type of division is one urban phenomenon that isn't going anywhere. The kind of rust you find on the Barclays Center and in the refurbished High Line park is a luxury item. In places like Cleveland and Detroit and the parts of New York without corporate sponsorship, rust is still just rust.

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

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