Slow and steady, please!
A city’s revival must have a story.
Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon is promoting a project to turn the Seoul Station Overpass into a park, and the inspiration is the High Line in New York. The High Line is spectacular as a park, but what’s more impressive is the process of transforming an abandoned elevated railway.
The High Line is a section of a freight rail line that opened in 1934. Its heyday was short as trucks dominated cargo transport in the 1950s. By 1980, rail traffic had ended, and the tracks were left abandoned for more than 20 years. Wild grass grew, and the tracks became rusty. Real estate developers demanded it be demolished, which then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani approved in 1999.
But then two young residents in the neighborhood - freelance writer Joshua David and start-up consultant Robert Hammond - formed Friends of the High Line, with their goal to turn the High Line into an urban park. They collected funds and assembled supporters. After long litigation, disputes, volunteer efforts and eventual support from Michael Bloomberg, the first section of the High Line opened in Chelsea 10 years later in 2009.
Last weekend, I walked along High Line Park. I could feel the autumn breeze as I entered the 34th Street entrance, strolling along a 2.5-kilometer (1.6-mile) swathe marked by skyscrapers and wild grass down to the Whitney Museum.
The pathway is miraculously peaceful, making the Empire State Building seem like nothing special. To the right is the Hudson River.
The stroll wasn’t enough, however, so after grabbing a quick bite at Chelsea Market, an old biscuit factory-turned food hall, I walked back up. I could hear people speaking French, German, Chinese and Japanese. They all seemed comfortable and at peace. The round-trip journey was anything but boring.
In September 2014, Seoul Mayor Park visited the High Line, where he got the idea for the 7017 Project to turn the Seoul Station Overpass, built in 1970, into a public park by 2017.
But Park isn’t the only one to have been inspired by the High Line. Every year, hundreds of foreign politicians visit High Line Park as they consider building something similar in their home countries.
The New York Times calls the High Line “like bagels and CompStat, another kind of New York export.” It cost $1.5 million to create the park, and its estimated value now is $500 million as a New York landmark and tourist attraction. The story behind the park’s creation makes it even more significant.
The path the Seoul Station Overpass should take is obvious. It needs to follow the High Line’s recipe for success.
There are two key elements. First, everyone needs to be a hero. From the two young men with seemingly absurd visions, to the residents who supported their dream, to the landlords who gave up on their immediate interests to the New York City mayor - everyone made the High Line a success.
It demonstrates the power of a voluntary civil movement. So the park should not just be Park Won-soon’s project. Once it is branded as his, it will fail. No matter how great it looks, there is no story in it. The story should be formed on the dreams, sweat and tears of the people.
So the mindset should change. The closure on Nov. 29 and the allocation of 23.2 billion won ($20 million) in funds next year should not be forced by the municipal authorities.
The Police Agency, merchants at Namdaemun Market and Mapo District residents should be encouraged to participate voluntarily. The High Line was not about the outcome, but the process.
Second, the timeline should be postponed. The goal of completing it by 2017, the year of the presidential election, could make people suspect ulterior motives. It should be delayed, at least, so that it is not finished within Park’s term. It could be postponed by 20 years. Each section of the High Line took nearly two years to complete and open.
The first section opened in 2009, and the third was completed last year. The mayor of Seoul should not be pursuing projects to take credit for them and use them as accomplishments to run for president. Seoul is more than 500 years old, but it needs to do two things: take its time and build a story. The Seoul Station Overpass could be the beginning. JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 12, Page 34
*The author is an editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Yi Jung-jae