A Walk on the Park
The new executive director of Friends of the High Line talks teen horticulture, the intersection of theater and parks, and pie in the sky ideas
Chelsea Jenny Gersten has perfected the walk-and-talk meeting. As the recently-installed executive director of Friends of the High Line, the non-profit conservancy group that runs the 1.45-mile long elevated park on Manhattan's West Side, Gersten is often conducting business while traversing the park she oversees, checking on the progress of gardening and art projects, chatting with staff members and greeting visitors like they're old friends. A lifelong New Yorker, Gersten previously worked in theater, serving as the associate producer for The Public Theater, and most recently as the artistic director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Now she's turned her focus and ability to create art from the stage to the High Line's revitalized railroad tracks.
You come from a professional background in theater. Were you looking for a change?
Not at all. I'd been the artistic director of the Williamstown Theater Festival for about three and a half years. I got a call from a family friend, saying, are you thinking about leaving? And I said, no I think I'm good to stay here a little bit longer. And he said well if you're interested, the High Line is looking for an executive director. And I said, well I would definitely talk to the High Line, and that's how I got this job.
What kinds of things are you doing now that are different from what you previously did?
The similarities are that they both traffic in live experience. In theater, it's a little more contained. This is obviously a more open, democratic platform for live experience, but that's essentially where they have commonalities. But I think that when we open the third section, which is the last major section of the High Line to open, the focus of the organization is going to shift. It will be much less about protecting, which was the first mission of the organization ? 'don't let anyone tear down the High Line' ? and then, 'let's build the High Line, let's make this incredible place,' and it's going to shift to, 'what happens on the High Line, and what are the programmatic priorities for the organization.'
We have our horticulture program, we have this amazing food program, we have this incredible public art program. We're just going to keep layering onto that and seeing how else we can be a resource both to the city writ large and to the local community in Chelsea and Hell's Kitchen and the Meatpacking District.
What are some ways you engage with the community?
Right now we have this teen program that was developed back in 2011 after the High Line did a survey of the two NYCHA complexes that are in our neighborhood, Chelsea Elliot and Fulton Housing. We asked them what they wanted from the High Line, and they said programming for teens [and] jobs for teens. So we created a couple of teen programs that are in their third year, and we have one teen program around horticulture, it's a job training program, so they get on pay roll, they're part time jobs, and they work with our horticulture and gardening staff to learn about green skills.
We have a teen arts council, their area focus is on cultural programming and production, so they do a lot of peer-to-peer networking. They meet with other teen arts councils around the city, like at the Met or the Brooklyn Museum. They create two teen nights on the High Line. They've done concerts, they've done carnivals. Last year we had over 700 teens attend.
How do you balance the day-to-day work with the long term planning for the High Line?
A lot of my theater producing experience was what I call swinging at pitches, which is like 'I gotta deal with this thing right now and get it out of the way,' but as I become really familiar with this territory and how the public interacts with it, I can start to think about the future. But I didn't show up on the door step being like, I have this fantastic huge idea that I want to fulfill! I just want to spend time talking to the staff, I want to be on the High Line, I want to experience it, I want to understand it better before I set up what the future looks like.
What's your job's biggest challenge so far?
I think it's been learning the language of parks. I was talking earlier about the similarities between theater and the High Line, but the language of open space in New York City is very different, and I've been spending a lot of time talking to colleagues who run other parks or conservancy groups to get a better understanding of the significance. Even talking to one of our board members, Amanda Burden, about how important open space is to urban life. I think that's particularly interesting as we hear a lot of conversation now in the de Blasio administration about park equity.
You've lived around here your whole life.
I grew up on 14th Street and 7th Avenue. I spent 27 years in the Village. I was always in New York, I would move up to Williamstown for the summers. I currently reside on the Upper West Side. I left the Village kicking and screaming, [but] I really adopted the Upper West Side. I live on 82nd Street.
What do you like to do in the neighborhood?
I work out, I do a bootcamp kind of thing in Riverside Park, I go to the Greenmarket on 77th and Columbus religiously on Sunday, where I compost and buy my produce. I have two children, so I mother them, in my spare time, and I bike ride.
What are you looking forward to on the High Line this summer?
We are celebrating our fifth anniversary of the opening of section one on June 9th, and we're going to have an event called Pie in the Sky, where we're going to give everyone some pie! We linked it to the anniversary because the idea of actually opening the High Line 10 years ago, when Josh [David] and Robert [Hammond] first started it, probably was a "pie in the sky" idea, so it's kind of great that it's been achieved.
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