'The matter of displacement: a queer urban ecology of New York City’s High Line' by Darren J. Patrick in (2013) Social & Cultural Geography 1 engages in a "critical queering' of
gentrification through an ecological analysis of the redevelopment of New York City’s High Line. Taking the abandoned-queer-ecology-turned-homonormative park as a novel form of gay and green gentrification, I argue that the ‘success’ of the project must be critiqued in relational ecological terms. Intervening into the literature of gentrification, I begin to account for the material and symbolic aspects of ecological gentrification with the help of innovations in plant geography and queer ecology. To ground my analysis, I look to the process of ‘succession’, focusing, in particular,on one of the most established and successful plants growing on the abandoned High Line, Ailanthus altissima or the Tree of Heaven. Drawing on empirical insights, this account of the High Line’s redevelopment tracks relations between queers and plants.Through layers of sexuality, ecology, and geography, the matter of displacement becomes central to a consideration of ethico-political possibilities for a queer ecological critique of urban space. In conclusion, I argue for an ethics and politics of responsibility to and for abandoned spaces that calls us to pay closer attention to the queer, the ecological, and their ongoing entanglement.Patrick explains that
I pursue a queer ecological critique of gay and green gentrification by way of considering entanglements of human sexuality and more-than-human agencies, specifically those of plants. Empirically, I focus on the redevelopment of New York City’s HighLine, a 1.45-mile-long (2.33km) linear urban park or promenade constructed in the formerly abandoned remains of an elevated railway on Manhattan’s West Side. Building on a foundation of semi-structured expert interviews and archival research, my effort is animated by photographic documentation of the vegetal landscape of the abandoned HighLine by the American photographer Joel Sternfeld. Reading his photographs through some key analytics of queer ecology, I think relationally with one of the former botanical inhabitants of the space, Ailanthus altissima, also known as the Tree of Heaven.
A. altissima’s biological capacities, along with its reputation as a so-called non native invasive species, offer some crucial insights into the political and ethical possibilities of a queered urban ecology. I emphasize both the material and symbolic role of A. altissima as an unruly actor whose ‘success’ as a species is inseparable from the continual anthropogenic production of waste spaces and successional ecological landscapes. I take A. altissima’s successional emergence in the abandoned ecology of the High Line, and its subsequent erasure from the planned landscape which replaced that ecosystem, as both metaphorically suggestive and literally entangled in the preservation-through-redevelopment effort spearheaded by Friends of the High Line (FoHL), the organization behind the effort to‘save’ the structure from demolition.
I am interested in A. altissima because of its status as an unruly ﬁgure, a literal weed, whose presence and adaptive capacities to produce space (i.e., to territorialize) involve (1) a geographic expression of its reproductive process and (2) its quasi-strategic capacity for‘self-recognition’ by way of a phenomenon called allelopathy. Perhaps uniquely among pioneering plant colonizers of the HighLine, A.altissima challenges us to consider the ways in which nonhuman displacement, in addition to reproduction and growth, plays an important role in the politics and ethics of ecological gentrification. Biological and ecological research on A. altissima retains a certain heteronormative attention to reproduction (i.e., reprocentricity). Even so, A. altissima’s reputation as an invasive species has prompted further exploration of the so-called ‘secondary metabolic’ processes that contribute to the plant’s success in urban ecologies. I read the latter alongside homonormativity, a term popularized by Duggan (2003) to critique the mainstreaming of metropolitan, white, bourgeois, and male gay sexuality in the neoliberal era. Duggan defines homonormativity as ‘a politics that does not contest dominant hetero-normative assumptions and institutions, but upholds and sustains them,while promising the possibility of a demobilized gay constituency and a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption’(50). I extend the critique of homonormativity to geographic and urban ecological analyses of gentrification to demonstrate the political and ethical risks and opportunities of the ‘progress’ claimed by organizations such as FoHL.
From an ecological perspective, even as particular ecosystems ‘services’ are beginning to be ‘valued’ in political-economic terms, A. altissima’s ‘success’ in urban areas globally continues to symbolize blight and decay, often marking spaces as ripe for redevelopment.What might have been different if plants such as A. altissima had not been erased from landscape of the High Line? How might an insistence on ecological queerness as a domain of responsibility for and to unruly actors help to provide political power and ethical grounding for human inhabitants of cities who are opposed to or impacted by gentrification? Finally, what might the destructive territorializing capacities and successional strategies of A. altissima offer to radical queers seeking to critique the success of human organizations and strategies that use ‘gayness’ to immunize against meaningful political opposition?
Building on the history of gay territorialization of New York’s Lower West Side neighborhoods, FoHL’s political success relied on a selective and naturalized narrative of succession between waves of gentrifiers. This was accomplished, in part, through the proliferation of images, including Sternfeld’s, and discourses of ‘urban pastoralism’ (Cataldiet al. 2012:369). FoHL’s success in advocating preservation through redevelopment relied not only on a variety of classic neoliberal and gentrifying tactics, as the review of literatures of gay and green gentrification will demonstrate, but also on an implicit appeal to the notion of homo normative urban ecologies in which possibilities for political and ethical linkages between sexuality and urban nature were only expressed within the narrow limits set out by the exigencies of capitalist urban development. In this context, A. altissima becomes a spectral ﬁgure whose disappearance from the ‘revised’ landscape of the High Line bespeaks an insidious tendency to obscure the project’s negative impacts on vulnerable human communities.
My analysis of the abandoned landscape of the HighLine deploys queer ecological critique rooted in a notion of responsibility to and for abandoned urban spaces and the complex entanglements they enable and embody. In addition to invoking concepts of nonhuman agency (Cloke and Jones 2002, 2003; Jones and Cloke 2008), I look to the pioneering work of Sandilands, who, invoking one of her literary interlocutors, calls us to ‘[A]ssume responsibility for a place’ by pressing ourselves to‘look both backward at the burden of its history and forward at our responsibility for those parts of its future that lie under human control’(Grover, quoted in Sandilands 2005). Putting a notion of responsibility at the center of a temporal development of place, I introduce a grounded set of possibilities for political–ethical engagements of and in queer ecologies. This gesture connects to a more recent specificationof the significance of the ‘queer’ in ‘queer ecologies’ offered by Sandilands: ‘If “queer” is to mean anything at all, it must include a continual process of displacing the heterosexual couple at the center of the ecological universe’ (forthcoming, emphasis in original). In the case of the HighLine, FoHL’s insistence on the ‘gayness’of the space suggests that, at least in urban contexts, we must be attentive to the ways in which ecological argumentation must displace not just heteronormativity and its couples,but an increasingly insidious and naturalized urban homonormativity (Andersson 2011: 1093–1094). This is especially urgent where the latter silences or displaces issues of race and racialization, class,and gender by way of embracing white metronormative gayness (see Halberstam2005: Chapter 2).
My analysis unfolds four sections. First, I trace multiple threads of scholarly literature,which help to situate the redevelopment of the High Line as a novel instance of gay and green gentrification. With this theoretical scaffolding in place, I move on to a more substantial account of the history of the site’s redevelopment. My empirical insights demonstrate both the extent to which the High Line’s redevelopment exists as a case of gay and green gentrification, and the important lacunae that remain if we only deploy literatures addressing these phenomena in order to understand this case. Here, I make an initial gesture toward plant geography that I develop more fully in the third section, in which I elaborate the theoretical insights necessary to push the critique further by considering queer ecology and the agency of nonhuman actors. This leads, lastly, to an overview of political and ethical possibilities for understanding the complex dynamics of gentriﬁcation and displacement in queer ecological terms.