Giving Harlem its High Line

La Marqueta, between 111th and 116th streets in Harlem, New York, was once the place to drive a bargain on plantains and avocados. But it never recovered from a slow decline in the 1970s, and several attempts to revive it have failed. Luckily for neighborhood residents, however, La Marqueta was built under the tracks of the Metro North rail line. That has given the Harlem Community Development Corporation (CDC) a rather bright idea. With the Center for an Urban Future, an independent think tank, the Harlem CDC is arguing that it is time to give Harlem its High Line.

The High Line has become a sort of urban-planning stereotype by now. Just tagging a project with the words “High Line” defines it instantly—community-led revival of defunct infrastructure for the creation of public space. The presence of an elevated, preferably abandoned rail line is, of course, vital. So the Bloomingdale Trail in Chicago, the Reading Viaduct in Philadelphia, and the Embankment in Jersey City have all lined up for their very own High Lines, but these projects are little more than replicas of what has already been achieved in New York. Thankfully, La Marqueta is actually an entirely different proposition, in spite of the overused descriptor.

Retail in Harlem is currently at a low—the neighborhood has 42 stores for every 10,000 residents, compared to 49 in Washington Heights and 132 on the Upper East Side. And forget about bargain avocados—fresh food of any kind is hard to find. David Giles, a researcher with the Center for an Urban Future, calls it a “food desert.”

So Harlem doesn’t need a fancy park for hipsters to picnic in, it actually needs La Marqueta back. The Harlem CDC proposes to do just that—revive the open-air market, and bring much-needed retail into the area. And with the backing of Irwin Cohen, who helped develop Chelsea Market, the new La Marqueta will be bigger—stretching for a mile, right up to 133rd street. The design might be a cross between the High Line and Chelsea Market, but it is likely that the Borough Market in London (also situated under elevated tracks) will be a model, using the rail line as a sort of detached roof for the stalls underneath. Local entrepreneurs will be encouraged, but anyone can have a stall in La Marqueta. The planners envision Chinese wedding cakes being sold alongside Senegalese tea, celebrating the multi-ethnic nature of Harlem today. If all goes well, it will be a rambunctious shopping experience, bringing in New Yorkers and tourists in droves.

The La Marqueta Mile richly deserves to be realized, so there’s little harm in calling it a “High Line” if it will help move the project along. The strengths of the project are unique—with immediately visible cultural and economic advantages for the neighborhood. And who knows, if La Marqueta Mile actually gets built, it might end up defining an urban-regeneration stereotype all of its own.

Photo: Dith Pran from the New York Times, 1986

Update: Thanks to one of our readers for pointing out that the Harlem CDC’s plans for La Marqueta include a design proposal by architect Meta Brunzema (who was a Metropolis Next Generation Award finalist in 2004). More details of the design are available on the Harlem CDC’s web site, and here.

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