Volunteers find a higher calling in elevated park


By Christian Wolan 

Born on the Lower West Side into a family with 14 siblings, Jamila Dphrepaulezz knows what it’s like to be selfless.

“When you come from a large family, you have to learn how to share,” she said.

Five years ago, Dphrepaulezz joined the Friends of the High Line as it began transforming the weed-ridden railroad tracks into a park in the sky.

Dphrepaulezz decided to volunteer after attending Open House New York, an annual event that opens sites of historical and architectural significance to the public. 

“I met a group of people who were really passionate about saving their part of New York history,” she said. 

A longtime West Village resident, Dphrepaulezz is in her 26th year as a distribution assistant for the law firm Davies, Polk and Wordwell. When Friends of the High Line events conflict with work, she uses vacation days to attend.

“I used to be a terrible workaholic,” she said, “and what happens, eventually, is you’ve got to find something that piques your interest.”

Danya Sherman, the High Line’s program and outreach manager, has been coordinating the volunteer program for the past five years, stretching back to well before the park’s first section was opened.

“Volunteers are welcome to help out based on their interests and availability,” she said.

The High Line already has about 100 active volunteers, Sherman said, but spots aren’t limited.

“We are interested in increasing meaningful volunteer opportunities on the High Line to engage all those who would like to help out,” she said.

Volunteers serve as greeters and educational sources within the park and answer questions about the park’s history and ecology. At street fairs and fundraising events, including the annual June gala, High Line volunteers assist in informing and educating the public.

Pete Davies, an actor turned blogger, is another volunteer for the new park. Thirty years ago, with a degree in theater, he left the San Francisco Bay Area for Soho. He found work acting in small theaters along 10th Ave. — and, on occasion, even performed on the street under the High Line.

He recalled how in 1980, the area around 30th St. and 10th Ave. was “derelict,” “abandoned” and a “wasteland.”

Before being transformed into a park elevated 30 feet above the ground, Davies said, “The High Line was just a big hulk that you walked under and didn’t pay attention to. You have to realize that the entire Meatpacking District, back then, was still a Meatpacking District.”

The High Line was constructed in the 1930s to replace dangerous street-level tracks that earned the nickname “Death Ave.” Trains ran on the High Line until 1980.

After years that saw the High Line sit idle, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani approved legislation to tear down the structure in 1999. In response, Davies and other preservationists attended community board city agency meetings to save the historic structure. 

“It’s a remnant of a New York that I haven’t seen,” he said. “I would have killed to see New York in 1948 or 1950.”

Though Davies welcomes the new hotels, high-rise buildings and restaurants that have recently sprung up along 10th Ave., he still thinks fondly of a time when the area was “rougher.”

“I’m glad I was able to experience both sides of it,” he said. “I kind of look at it nostalgically years later.”

He now works as a contributing editor for Curbed.com, a New York real estate blog. Last April, he officially became a volunteer of Friends of the High Line, and greets park visitors three times a week.

“For me, going up on the High Line is such a great experience,” he said. “It’s like entering a parallel universe where the whole city kind of melts away.”

The High Line’s first section, which opened in June, stretches between Gansevoort and 20th Sts. The Friends of the High Line have been raising funds for Section 2 — the 14-block northward continuation of the old elevated track — planned to open at the end of 2010, though recent reports say spring or summer 2011 is more realistic.

The total cost for the second section’s design and construction is $66.1 million. The city provided $38.2 million, while the federal and state governments have granted $19.2 million and $400,000, respectively. Fundraisers hosted by Friends of the High Line, private donations and the park’s 4,500 members have netted an additional $8.1 million. Notable sponsors include the Rockefeller Foundation and Tiffany & Co., as well as actor and East Villager Edward Norton.