James Ramsey Interview

Text: Periscope

If the idea of a park was expanded upward by the High Line, there is a project underway in New York to expand it to the opposite direction: Delancey Underground, aka the Low Line.
Conceived by designer James Ramsey and joined by two of his friends, the project aims to build a public space underground on the Lower East Side where from 1903 to 1948 a trolley terminal served commuters between Williamsburg and Manhattan.  Underground Development Foundation, the organization Ramsey started with two of his friends, R. Boykin Curry IV and Dan Barasch, was recently granted a non-profit status and now is in the process of fund-raising, preparing an exhibit to open in September, and going through a set of engineering studies.  This massive, ambitious undertaking, if all goes well, might be materialized as soon as 2014 or 2015.  We asked James Ramsey where the idea came from.

Q. How did you find out about the space and how did you come to the idea of having a public space underground?
New York history has been always an interest of mine. About three years ago, I was working with an engineer who had formerly worked for the MTA. One of the things he told me was there were all these lost spaces underneath the city. I thought it was incredibly interesting and he pointed me towards this Low Line site, which is the biggest, the most impressive one. It was just right down the street from my house. That is how the idea came into my mind.  New York City is always a forward looking city. It is a city based on commerce. It is a city based on progress and making money. Because of that, we pay a little bit less attention to our own history and the history of our building environment than some other cities. But the fact of the matter is it is an old city and there's a ton of stuff down there. And if you know where to look, you can actually find places of old New York.  I think that archaeological quality of New York is incredibly interesting to me.
Q. Did this idea have to do with the High Line?
There's a lot of similarities between the High Line and this project. When I was first thinking about this concept, it wasn't something directly inspired by the High LIne per se, but the High Line did something so creative with the unused space in New York City that it had an effect on a lot of people including myself in enabling to think a bit more ballsy about what public space can be.
Q. I imagine a project like this would require you to jump through major hoops. Did you actually think it was possible?
It does. It started off as more of just a cool idea. Then, the more i thought about it, the more interesting it became. And I started to actually design the space and started to think about how it might look and feel like. I talked to a buddy of mine who had some political connections and we were able to get a few meetings with some people in the mayor's office first, but then eventually landed one with the head of the MTA. Not knowing anything about the process or anything about what was involved or what to talk about with government officials, I just went ahead and started doing it and talking to these people. And in the process, I began to discover what the actual path is.
Q. When did you think this project could materialize?
This is the long way down the road.  I've explored it as a private interest, something that I thought interesting and cool. The more I talked to various friends of mine, the more it seemed like something we could actually get together and accomplish.  In particular, I have two people that I found the organization with. One of them is R. Boykin Curry IV and the other is Dan Barasch. Boykin is an old friend of mine with a lot of deep political connections.  Dan is also an old friend of mine who has a lot of experience with not-for-profit groups and local city government. So in exploring some of the ideas with them, we decided to start an organization to make this thing happen. In terms of creating a non-profit organization, we took a lot of cues from the guys who started the High Line and they have been advisers of our from the very early stage. One of the first people I'd ever talked to about the concept was Josh David, who was the founder of the High Line.  
Q. This seems like an ambitious, difficult undertaking.  What drives you to do this?
First of all, this is exploration of New York history in a way. It also an exploration of design and thinking about what this thing could possibly be. Being able to do something significant and create a landmark for the community to enjoy is the other thing that drives me.
Q. In a place like New York, what do you think public spaces do?
New York was built on the grid plan and there isn't a whole lot of left over space because of that. Then any space that exists is typically developed. Because of that New York has less open green space than other cities. In particular, this neighborhood is one of the most historic neighborhoods in New York, but also one of the most neglected in terms of having open space. So from Urbanism standpoint, this is something that could potentially redefine what you can do, but also create some vitally needed urban space in a very important neighborhood.
Q. Where do your ideas come from?
This is going to sound really weird but most of my ideas and good design work that I do kind of happen while I am sleeping. Typically, I go to sleep thinking about something and over the course of the night i'd have dreams of walking around these spaces. In the process I actually end up designing them.
Q. Do you wonder why you are doing this?
At the end of the day, I had an idea. And as I began to think more and more about it, it is such a compelling and cool idea, I am in the position to try making it happen. If not me, then who? If not now, then when? This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity.


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