If you’re fed up with partisan bickering and political dysfunction in Washington, the gratifying, lavishly-illustrated book High Line: The Inside Story of New York City’s Park in the Sky, just published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, might temper your burgeoning cynicism. The book is a lesson in what can be accomplished in the face of overwhelming skepticism and bureaucracy.
The new High Line park in New York City deserves to be celebrated not only for its innovative design, but also for the grass-roots collaboration that made the improbable idea of converting a derelict elevated railway on Manhattan’s West Side into a beautiful green space a reality.
The High Line is one of the most important public projects in New York City in decades, and the ultimate example of how fruitful a cross-pollination among various disciplines can be. The book’s authors, Robert Hammond and Joshua David, had no prior experience in planning and development (one journalist referred to them as “a pair of nobodies”), but this didn’t stop them from collaborating with artists, elected officials, neighbors, local business owners, horticulturists, and landscape architects to realize their vision.
This is a story about two ordinary guys taking on a behemoth bureaucracy and actually winning.”I didn’t understand the complexity of what we were getting into,” Hammond says in the book. “We would need to become versed in urban planning, architecture, and City politics, raise millions of dollars, and give years of our lives to the High Line.”
This industrial structure has a fascinating history. The first street-level railroad tracks were built on Manhattan’s West Side in 1847. So many accidents occurred between freight trains and street traffic that 10th Avenue became known as Death Avenue. In an effort to improve safety, men on horses, called West Side Cowboys, rode in front of trains waving red flags.
After years of public debate about the hazard, the High Line was built in the 1930s as part of a massive public-private infrastructure project called the West Side Improvement. The elevated railway lifted freight traffic 30 feet in the air, removing dangerous trains from the streets of Manhattan’s largest industrial district.
The new High Line connected directly to warehouses and factories on its route, allowing the trains to deliver milk, meat, produce, and other goods right inside buildings. This innovative design also reduced theft for the Bell Laboratories Building (now the Westbeth Artists Community), and the Nabisco plant, (now Chelsea Market). The entire project was 13 miles long, eliminated 105 street-level railroad crossings, added 32 acres to Riverside Park, and cost over $150 million in 1930 dollars—more than $2 billion today.
By the 1950s, the popularity of interstate trucking reduced rail traffic nationwide. The southern section of the High Line was demolished in the 60s. In 1980 the last train ran on the High Line pulling three carloads of frozen turkeys.
In the mid-1980s, a group of property owners with land under the line lobbied for the demolition of the entire structure. Peter Obletz, a Chelsea resident, activist, and railroad enthusiast, challenged the demolition efforts in court and tried to re-establish rail service on the Line.
As the line sat unused, it became known to a few urban explorers and local residents for the tough, drought-tolerant wild grasses, shrubs, and trees that had sprung up in the gravel along the abandoned railway. The photographer Joel Sternfeld shot some striking photographs of the High Line during this period. His book, Joel Sternfeld: Walking the High Line, is a transporting glimpse at this rusty, derelict structure before it was reclaimed.