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.
In 1999 David and Hammond met at a community board meeting to consider the fate of the High Line. They loved the ruin and saw it as an opportunity to create a new public space in Manhattan. They formed the non-profit Friends of the High Line that same year and began the difficult job of slashing through red tape and rallying political and neighborhood support.
In 2002 the project received city funding, and the following year 720 architecture teams from 36 countries submitted design ideas for the new park. The selected team was James Corner Field Operations, a landscape architecture firm, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, an architecture firm, planting designer Piet Oudolf, plus various experts in horticulture, engineering, security, maintenance, and public art.
The southernmost section of the High Line, from Gansevoort Street to 20th Street, opened as a city park on June 8, 2009. The middle section opened in June of this year.
Hammond and David’s candid, insider perspective on this decade-long project is a fascinating read. More than 200 photographs accompany their narrative and reveal the High Line’s history from its days as a street-level track, through it’s abandonment, and its eventual redevelopment. The compelling story of how these two “extraordinary ordinary” guys overcame bureaucracy and naysayers to make their vision a reality is the perfect book for artists, nature-lovers, designers, gardeners, photographers, and railroad buffs.
The High Line is a model reclamation project–one that incorporates green design with site-specific artwork, lively social spaces, quiet refuges, and innovative public programs such as stargazing, gardening, yoga, and snow sculpting. Today, the park is home to more than 200 species of grasses, shrubs, wildflowers, and trees, and hosts as many as 100,000 visitors in a single weekend.
I’ve visited the High Line on two occasions now, and found the park a welcome refuge from the bustle of the city. The designers have employed visual contrast and variation to great effect. There are overgrown, jungle-like tunnels offset by spectacular, open views of the Statue of Liberty and the Hudson River. There are quiet, solitary spots and open-air spaces to gather with friends.
The diversity of activity in the park is a testament to the park’s success. While visiting the High Line last month, I saw joggers, an outdoor wedding, kids playing on the lawn, an elderly couple lounging on the benches, a young woman reading beneath a tree, French tourists photographing the Empire State Building, an artist drawing in his sketchbook, and a father and his two children admiring the birds at Sarah Sze’s art installation Still Life With Landscape (Model for a Habitat).
But what was most striking about my experience on the High Line was the way it altered my perspective of New York City. As I rambled through the park, I found myself gazing over rooftops and water towers, marveling at the gritty brickwork on the side of an old warehouse, peering down a canyon-like side street, catching a glimpse of life through an apartment window, and watching the yellow blur of taxis whir by on the street below. Walking through the park is a bit like a treasure hunt–there are so many hidden surprises awaiting the observant pedestrian.
As Joshua David says in his book, it was the breathtaking view of the city that stirred High Line visitors even before the space became a park:
“We went north, to the square over Tenth Avenue. On one side, you could see the Hudson River, out to the Statue of Liberty. On the other side, you could lean on the railing and watch the cars on Tenth Avenue flowing underneath you. Then we rounded a curve and discovered, stretching out in front of us, this incredible straightaway that went all the way from Seventeenth Street up to Thirtieth Street, thirteen blocks long, with a view of the Empire State Building. It was a shock to see how beautiful it was. There was this tremendous sense of space. I’d passed it a million times and I hadn’t known it was there, hidden away in plain sight. You think of hidden things as small. That is how they stay hidden. But this hidden thing was huge. A huge space in New York City that had somehow escaped everybody’s notice.There was a powerful sense of the passing of time. You could see what the High Line was built for, and feel that its moment had slipped away.”
The High Line profoundly changed my relationship to the city’s architecture. Glassy office buildings, cornices, bricked-up windows, ceramic roof tiles, and industrial remains have never looked so good. The park’s design team has thoughtfully framed these features with plants, trees, and shrubs that complement in color and texture. There is so much to see here–layer upon layer of earth, steel, brick, light, vegetation, wood, and water.
The inclusion of site-specific art on the High Line is also an integral part of the park’s success. During my visits, artworks on view included Spencer Finch’s The River That Flows Both Ways in the Chelsea Market Passage, Sarah Sze’s Still Life With Landscape (Model for a Habitat), Kim Beck’s Space Available, and Julianne Swartz’s Digital Empathy.
“I hope the High Line will encourage people to pursue all sorts of crazy projects,” Hammond says in his book, “even if they seem, as the High Line once did, the most unlikely of dreams.”
Robert Hammond and Joshua David have given the city of New York a remarkable, rejuvenating gift. Perhaps we should send this dynamic duo to Washington?
To learn more about the High Line, including its public programs and art installations, please visit the High Line website. You can also donate to Friends of the High Line through the site or become a member.
High Line: The Inside Story of New York City’s Park in the Sky is available here or from your local bookseller. You can also learn more about the park’s history from Robert Hammond’s TED Talk.
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