In the waning days of 1903, throngs of New Yorkers braved arctic temperatures to gather along the East River. There were fireworks and a parade and men in top hats. They had come to mark the completion of the Williamsburg Bridge, a marvel of its day. Dan Barasch imagines a similar scene—minus the top hats—when he thinks about day one at the Lowline. “I hope that it’ll be something as historical as that,” he says. “A big fun party.”The idea is to take a long-unused trolley depot on the Manhattan side of the bridge and repurpose it as a public park—a rarity in the densely packed Lower East Side. The big idea: the 60,000 square-foot space is underground. It will use fiber-optic cables to funnel sunlight from the street down into the space, which sits on the far side of an active subway line.
But Barasch and fellow Lowline co-founder James Ramsey don’t just want the crowds there on opening day. The public, in a way, has been building the Lowline.
Barasch and his team knew early on that the project would live or die on community buy-in. Soon after the idea struck five years ago, they started meeting local leaders one-on-one. “Invariably, nine times out of 10, they’d say, ‘This is the coolest thing. Here are five names of other people to talk to.’”
The project picked up momentum at a packed community board meeting two years ago, where local politicians signed on. Last April, 3,300 future visitors chipped in a total of USD 155,000 in a Kickstarter campaign. “That was a tremendous game-changer,” Barasch told me recently at a coffee shop whose owners were patrons of the project. “We translated all the interest and energy we had just known from one-on-one conversations into something real.”
They’ve also turned to the community repeatedly for design input. Open houses and school visits have introduced plenty of new ideas. Like swings, lots of swings.
Barasch learned new-school community building in a previous job at Google, where he strategized about turning online thinking into offline doing. The Lowline is active on the usual-suspect social sites, but Barasch says good, old-fashioned email newsletters get the best returns.
His father told him stories about growing up in the Bronx in a time when massive infrastructure projects, led by city planner Robert Moses, were reshaping the entire city. “They had real contempt for the actual community,” Barasch says. “They were sitting in a room somewhere like a 17th-century military planner, saying, ‘This shall go here,’ without regard for what’s on the ground.”
Perhaps celebrated by would-be top-hat-toters, Moses’s highways were criticized for dividing neighborhoods and his parks for using clever social engineering to exclude low-income residents.
Barasch sees the Lowline’s ground-up approach as an antidote to the Moses model. Moses’s hard-charging style would help them clear one big hurdle on their horizon, though: they still need to convince the site’s owners, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, to let them use the spot.