I am walking 30 feet above the ground, through buildings, eye-level with billboards, rubbing shoulders, it seems, with all the tourists in New York City. I am surrounded by plants that poke out from the railroad tracks that are remnants of New York’s industrial past. The Hudson River looms on the horizon. Soon I will sit down on a bench that’s an extension of the deck planks and enjoy an ice cream cone, waiting for the sunset. If I’m lucky, the curtains in one of the new hotel’s windows will open and a burlesque show by amateur exhibitionists will begin. Why is this happening? Earlier this month on June 8th, Section 2 of the High Line opened to the public.
This latest event almost doubles the area of New York’s newest park to one mile and now connects several more neighborhoods along Manhattan’s far west side from Gansevoort Street to West 30th Street. This park has captured the imagination of New Yorkers when it first opened in 2009 and is now a destination, awing first-time visitors and seasoned locals (most of whom wish it were less successful) alike. On an ordinary day, the number of people who come turn the park experience into one comparable to a sample sale. As with all new parks, though, it has revitalized a neighborhood, spurring development along its way. The story of the High Line is one of perseverance, and one that almost didn’t happen but for the savvy public outreach program by a group of community activists.
I have to admit that I was one of the early skeptics, and I’m glad to report that I have been proved wrong. The pictures of the weed-strewn derelict tracks wending its way through New York’s mid-blocks were so evocative of romantic abandonment that I didn’t think that a park could live up to the image in people’s minds of what it could be. Also, early supporters continually referenced Paris’s Promenade Plantée, a poorly designed and the most disappointing of that city’s newest parks which is mostly abandoned but for a few lost souls. The High Line’s popularity, however, is most likely at odds with the personal reveries of the original dreamers of this park who imagined themselves strolling alone, enjoying the scenery.
That problem, however, is not due to faulty design which is sensitively done, artfully allowing nature to invade the new man-made surfaces as it did before the conversion. History has not been erased. Retaining a sense of its industrial past was clearly a main goal. Rails are imbedded in the new ground surfaces, native plants burst from around the planks. Wooden lounges rolling on the old rails are positioned for river views. Serendipitous views of the city—through side streets, into second and third story windows, over mechanics garages—enliven the linear walk.
First some background. The High Line in New York City was an abandoned 1.5 mile long elevated freight line built in the early 1930’s to ease truck traffic and prevent pedestrian deaths. The last train ran on the line in 1980. Demolition appeared to be a foregone conclusion until a group of business owners, along with some local residents and a smattering of celebrities, marshaled interest in restoring it through a clever campaign that drew the attention of city officials and inspired the broader community. These efforts changed the city’s mind about the future of this industrial artifact; the first phase of this newest park and public space in New York opened two years ago to overwhelming interest and crowds.
The ground-up method of community activism is a textbook case in how to influence public opinion, government action and change a neighborhood. In 1999, this informal community group became official, called itself the Friends of the High Line, and formed a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) corporation to preserve and reuse the rail line through the federal government’s “rail-banking” program. Its public outreach program was multi-pronged. In 2001, a photo essay by Joel Sternfeld in The New Yorker appeared, showing an evocative wilderness of weeds and savage areas with a backdrop of city skyscrapers. One year later, New York City sought a Certificate of Interim Trail Use for the structure from the federal government. Concurrently, the City Council allocated money for conversion planning while the area, which spanned three community districts, was being rezoned with plans that included the High Line’s reuse.
Throughout this period, public forums, coupled with positive Op-Ed pieces in major newspapers, were orchestrated. Brochures were printed and meetings organized involving influential planners and cultural leaders who spoke at panel discussions to define goals and share ideas about the High Line’s future. With no commitment from land owners or government that the trestle would be saved and money allocated, Friends of the High Line mounted an international “ideas” competition that attracted 720 responses—architects, artists and ordinary people from 36 countries. A selection of proposals was exhibited in Grand Central Terminal in July 2003 along with a video that explained the rail line’s history and steps for transforming it.
Building upon the publicity and overall awareness from this exhibition, the project was able to obtain government funding for planning and construction along with critical rezoning. Four final masterplan designs, a result of a 2004 invited competition, were publicly unveiled at New York’s Center for Architecture, and the team led by James Corner Field Operations with Diller Scofidio + Renfo was awarded the design. Throughout this process, “Community Input Forums” were held and articles appeared in newspapers and magazines.
Dreams of this park are over a decade old. It was not until 2005 that the City of New York acquired the structure from the entity that owned it, CSX Corporation. Construction started in 2006 with New York City funds. That it is a reality is the result of persistent hard work on the part of grass-roots advocates who knew how to coalesce the design and local communities and to involve the decision-makers and government officials who provided funding. They were also lucky. During the late 1990’s and early into 2000, the then-mayor, Rudolf Giuliani, with the concurrence of adjacent property owners, wanted to tear the structure down. The value of the property could not be determined and demolition proved problematic and too expensive.
The timing of this project coincided with a new mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who was more amenable to public developments and a changes in neighborhood character. While the project was being discussed, a natural conversion of the adjacent Meat Market into a new in neighborhood of design stores and restaurants was taking place, a reshaping that worked well with the solidification of its northern neighbor, Chelsea, as New York’s art gallery center. With these two transformations, the change of lower Manhattan from an industrial culture to one of leisure and consumerism was nearly complete, ripe for a park as the final catalyst.
Images of this new park immediately spurred high-end development before the first phase of the project was even finished, with some of the new apartment buildings being attached to the structure or bridging over it. This is almost always the rule. From the earliest days of Central Park to this day, private real estate concerns are never far from consideration when talk of developing parks starts. Ideas for parks unfold when land is still contaminated, city services and amenities scarce, and the surrounding neighborhood stagnant and struggling. A park’s construction and completion greatly influence the life of the city and affect the value of adjacent property—whether from the creation of new neighborhoods, the refurbishment of the old or the promise of unobstructed views in perpetuity. The history of the increased land value that park development brings is the basis of concern, not unfounded, about gentrification.
The jury is still out on the success of the High Line and how it will transition from the evocative relic that everyone romanticized in his own way to a modern park that will endure past its opening as the latest vogue. Given the new real estate developments, the High Line risks becoming the private backyard of the selected few who can afford to live nearby. Not only has the nature of residences changed from tenements to chic lofts and high rises, as the park has moved north, the original small design-oriented shops of the Meat Market appear to be superseded by chain stores that can meet the increased rents which have inevitably happened. This turn of events threatens to create a mall-like atmosphere which is happening throughout New York, but that is a story for another post.
This park is the last conversion of what was once a complete industrial infrastructure. The freight line was used to transport goods to factories along the west side of New York and, among its many uses, connected the factory that printed packages for Uneeda Biscuits and Oreos north of the City in Beacon, New York, for the Nabisco Bakeries on West 16th Street in New York City. Today, that bakery is the Chelsea Market, a rambling mixed-use food market and office building that was privately converted in the 1990s and that printing plant is now a museum, Dia:Beacon.
All photos by Carol Berens
For a detailed and illustrated map of the High Line Park, please visit this link from the Friends of the High Line website.