Living the high life in NYC! By Victor Guillon

  BBC video

The High line was a disused elevated railway until it was transformed into a linear park for pedestrians. It has proved to be very popular, even influencing other big cities to carry out similar projects. New Yorkers are very proud of it, especially since it ranked in the top ten list of the world’s most popular landmarks only three years after its creation! We can put forward the idea that to some New Yorkers at least, cultural heritage means transforming something old or disused into something completely different in order to make it useful for us and the next generation. There has to be continuity for something to be considered “cultural heritage”, it is by definition something renewed and passed on.

However, for other New Yorkers, cultural heritage is not quite the same thing. I came across an article that openly accused the High line of turning NYC into a Disney World version of itself! It said: “The transformation is good news for the elite economy but not for the many who have lived and worked in the area for decades”. For these people, bringing in something new deeply upset them. They were too attached to the place sentimentally and therefore it was hard for them to accept the changed use of the railway line. It is as if the railway had value as a ruin, having always been there, a part of their lives. Will Eisner wrote: “I feel that, somehow, the buildings of New York have a kind of soul”. This is exactly what the people living in the shadow of the High line felt. They had grown so attached to their neighborhood that any change would get at the very soul of the place… “Cultural heritage” is here the past continuing into the present, unchanged.

The definition of cultural heritage is different from one city to the next. For example, in Jerusalem, cultural heritage essentially has a sacred dimension. In Paris, it has more to do with national prestige and the locals’ nostalgia. As for New York, I think that, despite the few people who want to hang on to their memories and keep things as they are, cultural heritage is to do with keeping the city as dynamic as it has always been, by finding new uses for old places, and by respecting the tradition of constructing buildings in the grand style!

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