Smiling Hogshead Ranch is not…

In this post I assert that no one should be referring to Smiling Hogshead Ranch (and Montauk Cutoff/Ranch on Rails project) as the “Queens Highline”. If you are unfamiliar with any of these projects, feel free to click though these links and get to know them:

Okay, I’m a spiritual dude. I believe thinking about things give those things energy. Writing them down or speaking these things out loud breathes life into those ideas. For this reason, I also believe in being propositional and minimizing oppositional ideas, talk or actions. Why be negative when the positive idea is the one I want to breath life into?!
All that said, I feel I need to lay out some logic and pit to rest some confusion that plagues Smiling Hogshead Ranch and the Montauk Cutoff. Unfortunately and perhaps ironically, these damaging ideas are perpetuated by what are potentially some of our greatest friends and supporters.
I often find myself trying to avoid saying this statement, “Smiling Hogshead Ranch (or the Montauk Cutoff) is not the Queens HighLine (or Queens LowLine for that matter).” Please don’t be upset, or misunderstand me here. I love rails to trails projects. I think the HighLine is an exceptionally amazing project and everyone involved with Smiling Hogshead Ranch is absolutely humbled to even have the comparison made.
I’m writing this to explain, so let’s unpack that oppositional statement that I so often try to avoid by looking at the five W’s
Who? What? When? Where? and Why?
I’ll focus on Smiling Hogshead Ranch since it’s established and focus less on the Montauk Cutoff since it is still in its infancy. I’ll also predicate this by making the obvious note that I don’t know everything (or that much really) about the HighLine, so…

WHO created, built & maintains the two spaces?
– Friends of the HighLine formed in response to a plan to demolish the elevated structure. They organized, raised money, had plans drawn up by architects and landscape architects and worked with the Parks Dept, and contracted with builders to design, build out and maintain the space.
– Smiling Hogshead Ranch is completely designed, built and maintained by a group of guerrilla gardeners and volunteers. The founders incorporated as a nonprofit organization to enter into a year to year Garden License Agreement with the MTA/LIRR (property owner). A collective of collectives, many citizens organize and lead the Ranch.

WHAT is the function of the two spaces?
-The HighLine is an elevated city park offering a passive recreational space for people to walk or sit during daylight hours. Active components include cultural events, educational programming, commercial vending, and art installations. The landscape is primarily a passive space. HighLine Park is filled with native plants, little or no edibles and a very high quality built environment, from the lighting and elevators to the seating and pavement. The elevated structure is technically the largest greenroof in NYC; this green infrastructure provides rainwater capture, wildlife habitat, reduces heat island effects, cleans the air and performs a slew of other ecological services.
-Smiling Hogshead Ranch also hosts cultural events, has art, is home to many native plants and could be considered green infrastructure with many of the same ecological services performed. The Ranch also has a focus on obtaining a yield (done with many edible plants) while also attracting wildlife and acting as a community social space. Beyond raising awareness, the Ranch is poised to actively address social justice issues by creating an active urban agriculture scene in which “waste” streams are converted to added value agricultural products. Right now the Ranch is run by members and volunteers. In the future it is expected that The Ranch will remain in this same model but produce an offshoot in the Montauk Cutoff that will produce revenue and pay worker/owners to build and service cooperative businesses that employ many while greening our city and feeding our hungry, teaching our students, and healing our soil, water and air.

WHEN are these two projects happening?
– HighLine Park is open during NYC Park hours, essentially from dawn till dusk. Friends of The HighLine formed in 1999 and the Park was completed in 2015. The fine design offers universal access (wheelchair accessibility). No pets or bikes allowed.
– Smiling Hogshead Ranch was established in 2011. The nonprofit organization was created in 2013 and the Garden License Agreement signed in 2014. We are still expanding. With no fence, the Ranch is open 24/7/365 to anyone and everyone. We strive towards wheelchair accessibility. Pets are allowed, in fact there is a feral cat colony existing onsite.we actively promote bike culture although there isn’t really a place to ride bikes on site.

WHERE are these projects?
-The HighLine is atop abandoned, elevated tracks on trestles which run through Chelsea in Southwest Manhattan. It used to be an industrial area but is now bustling with extremely high-end retail and food options. The north end comes up to Hells Kitchen. The park has been a catylist for real estate growth and valuation. A stated intention of te origional organizers.
– Smiling Hogshead Ranch is located on abandoned railroad tracks in Long Island City’s Industrial Business Zone (IBZ). There is potential to expand onto additional tracks which are elevated on a bed of gravel. There are many schools and industrial businesses nearby and one of the largest active railyards in America is across the street. No residential buildings are in the immediate area. The organizers are attempting to outwit the creeping real estate speculation and displacement that is already changing he face of the IBZ.

WHY do these projects exist?
– The HighLine is a preservation project utilizing elevated tracks to expand green space in NYC. The NYC Parks Dept. took ownership of the infrastructure from the owning train company in order to create a public park. The organizers wanted to retain the infrastructure, promote tourism and increase local property values.
– Smiling Hogshead Ranch is a direct action addressing the shared commons, food, environmental, and other social justice issues, striving to create financially sustainable green-collar jobs, educate youth and professionals about all these issues and do it all as an autonomous, community-run, urban farm collective. Initially, we did not ask permission to create the Ranch. We now have a year-to-year garden license agreement with the MTA and are hoping to continue our unique brand of community land use activism.

So that is a little of what each is. I hope you noticed a significant difference. When the “HighLine of Queens” comparison is made, it undercuts the work, and potential, of both spaces. Would you call the HighLine “<a href=””The Growing Power Farm of Manhattan”? Of course you wouldn’t or maybe this analogy doesn’t work because you may not know about Will Allen’s Growing Power Farm, or maybe you would never compare a Manhattan park to a Milwaukee farm. Another, more simple, analogy would be calling a dog a cat, simply because you saw it on abandoned railroad tracks and you saw a cat on abandoned railroad tracks recently in the town over. Well this not only reveals you can’t properly differentiate a dog from a cat when they are both seen on railroad tracks, but it makes it hard for other people to know that that you saw a dog, not a cat, when you tell them about your experience. This can lead people to be disappointed when they visit and see a dog (especially if they are cat people). If you manage to convince many people it is a cat on those tracks, even though it is obviously a dog, it could also lead to the dog having to painstakingly explain the difference between a dog and a cat to everyone it meets, when really, the dog just wants to be the best dog it can be and defending it’s doggedness only detract from that mission. In another scenarios, this could make the dog seem anti-cat as it defends itself. Worst still, you could confuse the dog and it may start to meow in order to appease all those who visit the abandoned railroad tracks expecting to see a cat. I happen to be a dog lover and think that making the dog meow would be a real shame. I’m gonna let this tedious analogy go for now.

I love NYC Parks and the HighLine Park is an exemplary one. A shining example of what landscape architects like to call landscape urbanism. In fact, it is now the most popular tourist destination in NYC! I could write a whole blog post about how awesome it is if I only had the time. Let’s all love and support all City Parks, including the HighLine! I also encourage you to support your local urban farms, especially Smiling Hogshead Ranch! We at the Ranch have ambitious plans for an urban agriculture model unlike any that has been realized before. Please don’t make us give up this dream of a transformative urban farm and perfomrative landscape rising up out of the abandoned grey infrastructure of our revolutionary industrial past simply because you cannot see beyond the railroad tracks. Making the “HighLine in Queens” analogy forces us to put energy into oppositional statements that do not help advance our PROpositional project. Please don’t make us explain what we are not simply because we utilize the same hard, grey infrastructure to create our dream as another group in another boro did. Please respect our mission by not eclipsing it with their ideas or their brand. We love your enthusiasm for our project, please help us frame it in a useful way. May we suggest “Ranch on Rails”. This is far less confusing and infinitely less frustrating than the “Queens HighLine” comparison statement.

In Peas & SOILdarity -Gil Lopez


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