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All Aboard the High Line

All Aboard the High Line

The Wall Street Journal 6/23/2009


The High Line, an elevated railroad track running up the West Side of Manhattan, was built in the 1930s and abandoned by 1980. It thrived for years as a figment of people’s romantic imagination — a wild meadow threaded with rusty rails 30 feet above the street — that was visited primarily by adventuresome truants and graffiti artists. On June 9, the High Line, redesigned to look like a wild meadow threaded with a concrete path and some carefully relocated rusty rails, finally opened as a park — and it does not disappoint.

A copse of gray birch and Allegheny Serviceberry surrounds visitors as they emerge at the top of a stair at the park’s entry on Gansevoort Street. It’s an undeniably magical moment as the gritty cobbles, warehouses, and even the chic boutiques of the Meatpacking District below are shrugged off and an urban Elysium rolls ahead for some eight blocks up to 20th Street (the next section, due to open in 2010, will extend as far as 30th Street; the last bit curves around Hudson Yards).

Since opening and despite some rain, crowds have been so dense that at busy times a line stretches down the block toward the West Side Highway. For now, people can stroll in only one direction — from south to north — with guards heading off entry at all other points. Friends of the High Line, the nonprofit organization that will be operating the site in league with the city’s Department of Parks & Recreation, has said that its primary worry is that the new park might be loved to death. If it’s not, the city should seriously consider what went so right with this project and do it more often.

The High Line may be only 1.45 miles long and 30 to 60 feet wide, but the same issues of dereliction, prohibitive cost, initial real-estate opposition and community doubts that plagued Central Park in the 1850s also played out here — and were resolved with the same combination of private initiative, mayoral support, creative legislation, brilliant design and a willingness to risk the unpredictable that underlies all models of great urban development. (Within 10 years, land values around Central Park had increased 40-fold.)

Designed by a team led by landscape architects James Corner Field Operations and architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro with the Dutch planting designer Piet Oudolf, the reimagined High Line is not so much a park in the typical sense — no dogs, no jogging, no pick-up games allowed — as a boardwalk gazing out over a sea of brick, steel, glass and occasional slices of the Hudson River. It inspires a contemplative mood of awe and gratefulness that such a delightful oddity could be dedicated to public use.

There are said to be some 210 indigenous species in the just-opened section, although the impression they leave is of a controlled palette combining the humble — in memory of the self-seeded plants and scrub brush that had sole possession of the rails for so long — and the modestly ornamental, including autumn moor grass, twisted leaf garlic and flowering quince. The concrete plank walkway expands and contracts as it weaves its way down the viaduct, narrowing to as little as eight feet, where neck-and-neck strollers can cause gridlock; or expanding the full width of the rail bed to invite more congenial milling.

At 14th Street, a sundeck with a dozen or so broad-beamed wood chaises angled toward the sunset opens to unobstructed views of the river. On a recent Friday afternoon, it took less than 15 seconds for someone to grab a seat once it was vacated. Just as popular was the amphitheater, rows of bench seating dropped down below the deck and looking through a jumbo glass window right up the middle of Tenth Avenue.

Visitors read, text, talk and stroll in polite bunches through the landscape as it subtly shifts in mood, hue and density along the way. The detailing throughout is exquisite, from the sustainable IPE wood for benches (looking like high-end teak) to the pencil-thin LED light sticks and unobtrusive cove lighting along the iron railing. The High Line feels more like a trendy restaurant than a public park. While places to sit abound, trash cans do not.

The founding story of the High Line park has been published often: Two friends and a handful of celebrities galvanized the city, encouraged a groundswell of support for the site’s preservation and transformed what local developers were determined to tear down adjacent to the High Line into some of the hottest properties in town. By 2004, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s eyes were wide open to the park’s potential as a win-win for public and private interests, and he provided $43.3 million in financing (the total cost is estimated at $171 million). By 2005, about a dozen new projects were in the works along the site, offering at least 4,400 units of luxury housing.

But it would be a shame to see the success of the High Line primarily as a tale of unusual opportunity and creative development when it could be more. It’s worth remembering that in 1929 the High Line was part of one of the largest public-private projects ever undertaken in the city. Involving the New York Central Railroad Co. and the city and state of New York, the West Side Improvement Project was a costly $150 million (equivalent to $2 billion in today’s dollars) plan to remove dangerous freight trains from the busy streets of the West Side by lifting them to a level where they could still function efficiently. The idea of elevated circulation has persisted among visionary designers — from Italian futurist Antonio Sant’Elia’s “La Città Nuova” of 1914 to Raymond Hood’s apartment bridges in the 1920s to the raised railway system in Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” movies. Those futuristic visions were zoomy, but perhaps the time is ripe now for landscaped pedestrian passages that link buildings and lift people away from traffic; places that are elevated in more ways than one.