A Special Installment of “A Helluva Town”
There’s a park in New York City that runs from Gansevoort Street in lower Manhattan’s old Meatpacking District north to 34th Street. It’s a long, thin strip of park, unlike the famous Central Park, a big rectangle, or the less-famous, amoeba-shaped Prospect Park in Brooklyn, but it doesn’t run along a riverbank like Hudson River Park that meanders along the western shore of the lower half of Manhattan Island. It has no playing fields, dog runs, great lawns, outdoor theaters, or band shells. It’s an entirely artificial park, with no natural terrain or groves of trees, no outcroppings of rock, no little ponds or rivulets running through it. In fact, it really has no geology at all—at least none that nature assembled.
Okay, so if you haven’t guessed yet—and the title of this article didn’t give it away before you started reading—I’m talking about High Line Park that’s been built (is being built—there’s still a chunk below the northern terminus that hasn’t opened to the public yet) in the rail bed of the old elevated freight line that serviced the factories and warehouses of the Lower West Side of Manhattan when it was still an industrial neighborhood. “A park in the sky,” New York City parks commissioner, Adrian Benepe, called it; Justin Davidson of New York magazine described it as “levitating parkland.” Aside from anything else, the High Line is a remarkable example of urban renewal and the repurposing of derelict infrastructure: taking a rusting, unused railroad trestle, which had been stretching overhead more or less along 10th Avenue for decades doing nothing but creating a shadow and gloom and threatening to fall onto cars and the heads of anyone foolish enough to walk along below its route, and converting the eyesore into something not only attractive but popular and valued. It is, I believe, an almost unique space. To my knowledge, the only park like it that exists anywhere else in the world is the Promenade Plantée in Paris; a few cities like St. Louis, Philadelphia, Jersey City, Chicago, and Rotterdam are now planning similar projects. (The suggestion that the old Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson between New York’s Westchester and Rockland Counties might be converted into a cross-river park when a new bridge is built has been recently rejected. However, back in New York City, a group has proposed turning a former MTA trolley terminal under Delancey Street in Lower Manhattan into Delancey Underground, nicknamed the “Low Line.”)
I’ve walked along the High Line twice now—I live five blocks directly east of one of the farthest-downtown entrances—and I’ve walked beneath it a number of times since it started being opened in segments. (I did try to go up right after the first section opened, but I chose the one afternoon on which the city decided to close it early.) The High Line is, aside from any other attraction, a stroller’s paradise—an urban boardwalk, as the New York Times characterized it. When I was a teenager, my family lived in Germany for several years and my dad picked up the practice of Spazierung, taking a leisurely promenade purely for the exercise and enjoyment of it—not going anyplace, not shopping, not running errands, just strolling. In Dad’s first assignment, we lived in the small city of Koblenz and the government-provided house was on the Rheinanlagen, a pedestrian promenade along the Rhine River that was closed to motor vehicles. Dad started collecting Spazierstöcke, walking sticks, and habitually took evening walks along the Rheinanlagen, watching the river barges going up and down or the activity along the shore or in the houses and businesses on the city side of the promenade or the scenery on the opposite bank. The High Line has a similar feel—though the passing scene is different. One entrepreneur who built a hotel straddling the walkway on Washington Street at 13th even proclaims, “It’s like a 19th-century bucolic stroll. You can almost imagine people with parasols.” Well, maybe—if you squint and plug your ears.
High Line Park is a linear park built on a disused, 1½-mile stretch of the elevated New York Central Railroad spur called the West Side Line which has been redesigned and landscaped as an aerial greenway. The elevation above the street is 18 to 30 feet—at around the level of the third story of most buildings along the route. The park currently runs a mile from Gansevoort Street, three blocks south of West 14th Street, up to 30th Street, through the neighborhood of Chelsea to the Hudson Rail Yards near the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. Starting just west of 9th Avenue, most of the High Line’s route runs above or slightly west of 10th Avenue, but at the northern end, the last half-mile segment, donated in July 2012 by CSX Transportation, will shoot west over 30th Street to 12th Avenue and then hook north around the Hudson Yards development site and along the Hudson bank to 34th Street. The total length when completed, at a projected cost of $170 million (sections one and two are reported to have cost $152 million), will be 22 city blocks from northern Greenwich Village through western Chelsea into Clinton (formerly known as Hell’s Kitchen); at 30 to 60 feet wide, the park will comprise almost seven acres.
The rail line itself dates back to 1847 when the city approved the construction of a railroad down the West Side at street level, but there were so many fatal accidents involving the trains that 10th Avenue acquired the nickname “Death Avenue.” Men on horseback, known as West Side Cowboys, rode before the locomotives to warn away other traffic by waving red flags, but by 1929, New York City and State and New York Central agreed on improvements that included the High Line. Running 13 miles from 34th Street down to Spring Street in what’s now SoHo, the elevated tracks opened in 1934. Serving the factories and warehouses directly, the line ran through buildings along its route, such as the National Biscuit Company (home of the Oreo and since 1997, Chelsea Market) and the Bell Telephone Laboratory, rather than necessitating street-level depots and railroad crossings. This allowed cargo to be loaded and unloaded without obstructing traffic or commerce along the street and reduced the opportunity for theft. Trestles entering and exiting buildings several stories above the ground are still visible along the park’s route, though the rail-trail doesn’t include many of them.
As interstate trucking replaced shipment by rail after World War II, the line became less trafficked and by the 1960s, the section of the High Line below Gansevoort Street was demolished. Conrail, the successor to New York Central (and the predecessor of CSX), last ran a train along the elevated track in 1980. Following that, property-owners over whose lots the line hovered lobbied to get the rest of the now-disused and deteriorating line pulled down. I used to drive up and down the West Side fairly regularly in those years (actually starting in the mid-’70s when a train might still lumber through once or twice a week), and the rail bed had become little more than a rusty, ugly derelict—fascinating because of its suspension above the roadway and its passage through buildings along the West Side Highway (also once elevated and now mostly gone). It was an eyesore, but the far West Side of Manhattan was largely industrial—warehouses, factories, auto shops, piers—and the waterfront a few blocks farther west was deteriorating as well, so the abandoned rail line was just part of the general decay of the whole area.
During the 1980s, on the coattails of the fiscal crisis of the previous decade, nothing was done and the track sprouted its own kind of vegetation—wild grasses, a few rugged trees, and other self-seeded plants—and became a little-known destination for urban spelunkers to trek through (though access was officially prohibited). During Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s administration, 1994-2001, the High Line was scheduled for demolition. Even then, however, there was a movement to save the elevated track as a rarity of urban architecture and do something useful and beneficial with it rather than just junk it. (The same kind of sentiment resulted in the Hudson River Park that now attracts walkers, bikers, diners, and others to the riverbank where deteriorating piers were rotting and crumbling into the water. Commercial interests also wanted to tear that all down and open the riverbank for development. Big, busy, bustling New York City, it seems, has its own kinds of environmentalists. I think the now-lamented loss of the old Penn Station and the near-loss of Grand Central—averted by an effort spearheaded by Jackie Kennedy Onassis—has taught New Yorkers an indelible lesson in urban preservation.) Still, High Line Park looked to most New Yorkers like one of those ideas that sounds good, but won’t ever really happen. (Another one was the late Senator Daniel Moynihan’s proposal to replace Penn Station, the monstrosity that took the place of the elegant original, with the city’s James A. Farley Post Office across 8th Avenue—designed by the same architects as the lost railroad terminal. That’s looked like a dead idea several times, but it may yet happen, too.)
In 1999, the Friends of the High Line formed to advocate the preservation of the rail line and repurpose it for public use and open space. The Promenade Plantée, inaugurated in 1993, was apparently a model, and this time, public support grew. The far West Side of downtown Manhattan had already begun to be a place of considerable interest to the cool and trendy—clubs, restaurants, boutiques, and design and photo studios were replacing the non-retail businesses down there—as Chelsea, home since the mid-’90s to what became the world’s largest concentration of art galleries, was being gentrified and reclaimed as a desirable living area of renovated brownstones, converted loft buildings, and new construction. The High Line was a curiosity and something unique to the area and people living, working, and visiting in the neighborhood wanted to keep it. With celebrity support from people like designer Diane von Furstenberg; her husband, media executive Barry Diller; and actors Ethan Hawke and Edward Norton, FHL persuaded Mayor Michael Bloomberg to reverse his predecessor’s demolition decision, and City Hall and the City Council committed to the redevelopment of the elevated rail bed as a greenway in 2004. That fall, after an open design competition, FHL and the City of New York selected the design firm of James Corner Field Operations, a landscape architecture company, and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, an architecture firm, to devise the park. The team included planting designer Piet Oudolf and experts in the fields of horticulture, engineering, lighting, public art, and other fields pertinent to the venture. After obtaining the necessary clearances from the federal agencies that oversee rail operations, construction began in 2006. The first section of High Line Park, from Gansevoort up to 20th Street, opened to the public on 9 June 2009; the second section, north to 30th Street, opened on 8 June 2011. The last section, from 30th to 34th Street in the neighborhood once known as Hell’s Kitchen, will be starting construction later in 2012 for a projected opening in Spring 2014.
The construction process was broken into the stages: 1) Remove all existing surface material on the elevated tracks, including gravel, soil, debris, and a layer of concrete, down to the steel-and-concrete structure; 2) Repair the steel and concrete, install new drainage and waterproofing, and sandblast all steel surfaces to remove the original lead paint; 3) Construct the new park landscape itself. Once the superstructure was renovated and restored, in most cases to the appearance of the original trestle, and the lower layer of waterproofed concrete was laid, the High Line’s walkways were created from smooth, tapered concrete planks (resembling wooden laths as if the greenway were, in fact, a metropolitan boardwalk), leaving space between the foundation and the surface for drainage and wiring. In many spots along the path, the original railroad tracks were embedded in the concrete planks or incorporated into the plant beds as part of the design.
The walkway blends foliage (modeled on the self-seeded vegetation that grew on the High Line after it was abandoned to nature) with the long, narrow “planks” of white concrete forming a linear promenade. The greenway contains attractions such as a water feature that allows visitors—especially kids!—to wade barefoot; platforms for watching the traffic below; a sundeck and a lawn for picnicking; and gathering spaces for performances, art exhibits, and educational programs. Plentiful seating has been designed into the greenway, including plain wooden benches, metal café tables and chairs, the park’s distinctive “peel-up benches” which rise gradually from the walkway, and wooden chaises longues (on miniature train wheels mounted on embedded tracks) with views of the Hudson. Access to the High Line, by stairs and elevators from the sidewalk below, is arranged so that the seemingly uninterrupted flow of the path isn’t disturbed, giving the impression of a country promenade—only with city views. And since the park remains open after dark, there are lights along the rail-trail, but instead of overhead street lamps, lighting is provided by LED’s set in the railings below eye level so as not to wash out the ambient light of the cityscape as dusk falls over western Manhattan and the New Jersey shoreline across the Hudson.
The path swings from side to side along the greenway, leaving room on one side or the other for beds of plants lining the park. The plantings were selected by the High Line’s team of horticulturists according to the plans of landscape architects James Corner Field Operations and planting designer Piet Oudolf, inspired by the weeds, grasses, and wildflowers that grew between the abandoned tracks. The plant varieties were chosen for their hardiness, sustainability, and textural and color variation, and the landscape was designed so that different plants bloom at different times of the year so some foliage is always growing. The irrigation is based on a self-sustaining return system which directs rainwater to the plant beds rather than pumping an outside supply up to the park. (This is one of the reasons that dogs aren’t permitted on the High Line—to cut down on the pollution of the irrigation water.) About 75% of the 210 plant species are native to the New York City ecology, though others have been imported from all over the country and even beyond to create an environment that, like the constructed elements of the design, is a blend of the artistically artificial and randomly self-seeded nature. You might envision the growth you’d find along a rural riverbank—but as if it had been cultivated and gardened by some avid naturalists. New York’s Adam Sternbergh described it as “a thoughtfully conceived, beautifully designed simulation of the former High Line.” It fits perfectly with the idea of planks that look like wood but are really concrete and a boardwalk that’s suspended more than a dozen feet above a busy city thoroughfare. In fact, Ricardo Scofidio of the architecture firm has a word for the concept, ‘agri-tecture,’ which he explained “combines organic and building materials into a vegetal/mineral blend.” Not really coincidentally, the construction of the High Line itself isn’t the only conceptual clash—or palimpsest perhaps—associated with the park. Up top, it’s tranquil, contemplative, calm: no bikes, frisbees, ball games, or rollerbladers; down below, it’s traffic, metropolitan whirl, nightlife, commerce. Separated only by the structure of the defunct rail line, it’s what one area businesswoman calls “cross-cultural friction.” (Where else but New York City. Really.)
Scattered among the foliage are also art installations, selected specifically for the greenway’s environment. Some of the artworks are integrated into the plantings—and aren’t always easy to spot among the vegetation—while others simply compliment them. (A few, like Elad Lassry’s 2012 billboard Women (065, 055), on view at West 18th Street and 10th Avenue through 7 September, are off the trestle but designed for viewing from the greenway.) Since both the plants and the art are labeled, you could look on the High Line as both an urban nature walk and a linear sculpture garden. (The park’s website lists the commissioned art. Log onto http://www.thehighline.org, which also includes a page for news and a blog, for all kinds of current and updated information about the park and its neighborhood.) The High Line artworks include site-specific pieces, exhibitions, performances, video programs, and a series of what FHL calls “billboard interventions.” (This doesn’t take into account art commissioned by the private buildings in sight of the rail-trail, such as Urban Rattle, a sculpture by Charlie Hewitt installed last May in the courtyard of Ten23, a residential high-rise at 500 West 23rd Street at 10th Avenue.) Not all the art is purely visual: the current offerings include at least two sound works, one by John Cage (One11 and 103 at the West 14th Street Passage) and the other by Uri Aran (Untitled (Good & Bad) on view between West 25th and West 26th Streets). The Cage piece, a celebration of the composer’s centennial, is a presentation of Cage's 1992 film and sound composition (from 1:00 to 11:00 p.m. through 13 September); Aran’s “playful sound installation” (until 14 April 2013) turns the park into “an imaginary jungle.” FHL commissions and presents a variety of art projects on and around the High Line and there are also plans to use areas of the park for temporary art exhibits as well as other kinds of presentations. I predict it won’t be long before performances of one kind or another are conceived for the strip park, perhaps a hybrid of the shows commonly presented in ground-level parks and the guerrilla pieces occasionally performed on moving subways.
There’s no restriction on bringing a snack or a drink into the park—aside from the common-sense rules regarding littering and alcohol consumption—and there are areas where picnicking is encouraged, but the park also hosts some food vendors. As the park’s website states it, FHL “is committed to working with entrepreneurial food partners whose products are good for the people eating the food, good for those who grow it, and good for the land.” The vendors, serving varieties of food from snacks to desserts (especially the frozen kind) to light meals, are concessionaires, of course, and what’s available will change from time to time as vendors come and go. (Some concessions may not be open on certain holidays or during bad weather.) Some of the concessions are small cafés with limited seating nearby, but many are stands or carts and you either eat on the move or light on any convenient bench or perch—or you can enjoy your refreshment as you stand at the rail and gaze out at the Hudson or the cityscape (but no sitting or climbing on the railings or other parts of the High Line structure). Though alcohol from outside the park is prohibited, some of the concessionaires do sell wine or other spirits. In addition to the vendors, the High Line hosts occasional food-oriented programs and demonstrations. (The website lists the current concessions and there are sites that keep prospective parkgoers posted on events of all kinds.)
The whole experience is anomalous. It’s not like hiking along the road or even walking along the edges of a ground-level park where you share the space with street traffic and sidewalk pedestrians, but at the same time it’s not very far above the real world, like, say, the observation deck of the Empire State Building. At three stories up, you’re not removed from the world of the street—you can still hear it and smell it, even feel it—but you’re untouched by it. At 17th Street, a spot called 10th Avenue Square, you can sit on bleacher-like steps and watch through a huge “proscenium” window as the cars and trucks rush northward along 10th Avenue below you, like a giant, live video show. Park users can even peer into the apartments of people living along what the New York Post dubbed the “‘Pry’ Line”—you can’t do that in Central Park or Washington Square. In a development that seems quintessentially New York City-flavored, some residents of apartments almost within reach of the High Line, began playing to the crowds that gathered at what was the end of the promenade when section one was all there was. The fire escape of one apartment, lit by the stairway lights of the new park, became a stage as the tenant and her friend presented a “laundry installation” and sang pop standards at the High Line Park Renegade Cabaret. “This is what we wanted,” said one the founders of FHL who was in the audience one evening. More than the plantings and the art, he added, “It is going to keep it wild” up on the High Line. Only in New York.
Some of the new buildings have even incorporated visibility from the walkway, along which apartment-dwellers “live in a peep show,” into their designs. The designer of one of the High Line high-rises pointed out, “People who live on the lower floors are probably not eccentric recluses looking for a haven,” though one report quoted a High Liner complaining, “It's voyeuristic, and there's zero privacy. It's just really embarrassing,” and another exposed resident objected, “If I’m watching TV on a random Saturday, I don’t want a tourist looking in.” For other new residents, however, it’s become a sort of witting Rear Window lifestyle: they chose to live in the fishbowl, they know they’re on display, and they even select their décor and even their behavior to accommodate the exposure. “I have no problem living in this bubble,” one resident declared. “It’s the best bubble.” Another explained, “Whenever I have my blinds open, I make sure my apartment looks pristine.” Some even flaunt the exposure a little: preparing a space in her living room for a new sculpture that would be visible from the trestle, the resident of another of the new High Line buildings proclaimed, “If we can show an artist to four million people, why not?” It’s symbiotic, too, of course, since the parkgoers are also on display to the residents. Many who live along the promenade think of the park as their lawn: “It’s like having a backyard, but we don’t have to mow the High Line,” said one. Arranging one room for its view out the window at the park, another apartment-dweller admitted, “We knew it would be the best view in the house.” Often sitting in their windows or on their balconies and fire escapes watching the passing show, apartment-dwellers wave to the lookie-lou’s. One man tells of watching a little romantic drama set in the park: a marriage proposal. “It was very well staged,” applauded the unobserved observer.
The park and other improvements to the far West Side of the island have spurred new construction and conversion. New York magazine already speaks of “the High Line neighborhood: the new skyline of glittering retail spaces and restaurants and condos.” The Whitney Museum of American Art has begun construction on a new main building—it’s leaving its longtime home at 75th and Madison—at the southern terminus of High Line Park at Gansevoort Street, to open in 2015. A number of the new buildings along the High Line have innovative and even daring designs by pioneers like Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Annabelle Selldorf, and Neil Denari. Ironically, those same property-owners who had objected to the High Line’s remains hanging over their plots in the ’80s have benefited from the rise in property values and the increased development, the drop in crime, and the growth of business opportunities in the vicinity of the High Line. Tourists, diners, and shoppers are flocking to the area and locations like the Chelsea Market, installed in the old Nabisco factory before the park was built, are always busy and crowded. Crime in the park itself is virtually nil (and even infractions of park rules is lower than Central Park, say officials); in the surrounding area it’s remained very low as jobs, beyond the 8,000 construction workers employed to build the park, have increased by over 12,000 as of last year.
Of course, as often happens when a neglected, shabby area revives and becomes desirable, old residents, often low-income and elderly, are displaced. It happened in Greenwich Village and then in SoHo, among other trendy New York City neighborhoods. The little diners and saloons of Chelsea have been supplanted by higher-priced restaurants and bars, cold-water walk-ups have been converted into loft apartments and condominiums, and other old buildings have been torn down to make room for new steel-and-glass structures in which the former tenants can’t afford to live. Rents in some buildings have doubled since the park opened reported one city official, and leases for business properties along the route have increased as much as three- and fourfold, pricing many mom-and-pop stores out of the area. Not all of this change is connected to the High Line: a lot of it started before the park was built or even approved. In fact, Chelsea was well on its way to becoming the new Greenwich Village, which had priced itself beyond the budgets of most of the artists, writers, actors, and other trend-setters who had lived there, a decade or more before the first weed was pulled along the elevated tracks. It may well have been because of the upgraded status of Chelsea, which was a low-income tenement neighborhood when I first came to New York and moved into the neighborhood to the east (then without a hip name), that the High Line had the local support that made it a reality.
High Line Park, owned by the City of New York but operated, financed, and maintained by FHL, the non-profit organization that promoted it, under an agreement with the city’s Department of Parks & Recreation, is open year round, from 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. daily. (The hours may vary depending on the season. Check the website.) Fully wheelchair-navigable, the High Line has entry points about every two or three blocks; there are restrooms currently at the 16th Street entrance and water fountains are located near the Gansevoort Street, 16th Street, and 18th Street access points. (All entry points have stairs, but there are elevators currently at four entrances. The park’s website provides updated information about access points and services as the sections open to the public. FHL staff and volunteers, identified by ID badges or the High Line logo on their clothes, are on duty along the rail-trail as well.) The west side subway lines don’t go further than 7th and 8th Avenues, but many crosstown busses will take parkgoers to 9th or 10th within a block of most entrances. Though bicycles are prohibited on the High Line itself, there are bike racks near the staircases at most of the entrances. Walking tours of High Line Park, available on a first-come, first-served basis, are scheduled during the summer, fall, and spring for groups smaller than 20. Larger group tours, as well as photo and film shoots and parties or other large events, can be arranged by contacting the park authorities at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Most of the regulations governing behavior and activities in the park are the same as for any of the street-level parks as well, including the ban on smoking, but in addition to the rule against biking, visitors are not permitted to bring dogs into the park, ride skateboards, skate or rollerblade, ride a scooter (except a handicap vehicle), throw objects (including balls or frisbees), pick the flowers or plants, set up elaborate photography equipment, or play amplified music or sound. (Those last prohibitions, along with a few others, can be waived by permit or prior arrangement.) Except in the designated spots, visitors are forbidden to walk through the plant beds or on the grass. Despite such restrictions, however, parkgoers find a wide variety of activities, mostly low-impact, to be sure, such as writing—there are many journals and notebooks on view as you stroll along the path—and sketching. On one recent walk I watched a couple of groups of little kids from a daycare or summer camp in the area, probably between five- and eight-year-olds, having a drawing class in one of the southern plazas near where the greenway passes through the Chelsea Market building. All around them, as they sprawled on the ground or propped themselves up against a pillar, were other visitors taking a break in the chairs set up at metal café tables while a steady stream of walkers in couples and family groups passed by. The scene changes as the day goes on: there are early-morining joggers, kids playing games in the daytime, office-workers on lunch breaks in the afternoon when the park is fullest, and dating couples on the benches in the evening gloaming. Anytime I’ve been there, the park’s been busy—it attracts millions of yearly vistors—but not crowded, full of partakers, but leisurely.