Gwarlingo Tours the High Line, New York’s Park in the Sky

The end of The High Line as seen from street level (Photo Courtesy Wired NY)

 

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.

 

(Photo Courtesy Urban Design Review)

 

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.”

 

Phase 2 of the High Line in 2011 (Photo by Iwan Baan Courtesy Friends of 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.

 

Before the High Line was built, trains ran at street level. Conditions along 10th Avenue were so bad that it was nicknamed "Death Avenue." (Photo Courtesy Friends of the High Line)

 

 

For safety, the railroads hired men – the "West Side Cowboys" – to ride horses and wave flags in front of the trains. (Photo Courtesy Friends of the High Line)

 

 

The city’s solution was to build a 22-block long elevated railway, or High Line. (Photo Courtesy Friends of the High Line)

 

 

An archival photo showing construction of the original High Line (Photo Courtesy Friends of the High Line)

 

 

Construction of the Elevated Railway on Gansevoort Street Looking North (Photo Courtesy the NY Historical Society)

 

 

The elevated railroad on the West Side of Manhattan is it appeared in 1934 (Photographer unknown)

 

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.

 

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. This photo shows Obletz outside his home in 1983. (Photo by Peter Richards Courtesy Friends of the High 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. (Photo © Joel Sternfeld Courtesy Friends of the High Line)

 

 

(Photo © Joel Sternfeld Courtesy Friends of the High Line)

 

 

(Photo © Joel Sternfeld Courtesy Friends of the High Line)

 

 

(Photo © Joel Sternfeld Courtesy Friends of the High Line)

 

 

Section 2 of the High Line near 29th Street in Winter 2007. Before the park was built, a High Line neighbor would decorate this tree every winter. (Caption and Photo Courtesy Friends of the High Line)

 

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.

 

The High Line under construction (Photo Courtesy Friends of the High Line)

 

 

Planting the High Line (Photo Courtesy Friends of the High Line)

 

 

The High Line under construction (Photo Courtesy Friends of The High Line)

 

 

Creating a quality logo early in the planning process was essential to the success of the project. (Photo Courtesy Tanenhaus via Flickr Commons)

 

 

The new High Line Park (Photo Courtesy the American Society of Landscape Architects)

 

 

The High Line at Evening (Photo by Oliver Perrin via Flickr Commons)

 

 

In some sections of the park, the old train tracks can be glimpsed in the gardens (Photo Courtesy Tanenhaus via Flickr Commons)

 

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.

 

There are many interesting features in the park, including this overlook onto 10th Avenue (Photo Courtesy Phil Photostream via Flickr Commons)

 

 

Innovative sidewalk designs integrate well with the surrounding plantings (Photo courtesy Tanenhaus via Flickr Commons)

 

 

The Chelsea Market passage at Night (Photo by Dsade via Flickr Commons)

 

 

A snow sculpting competition is one of 300 public programs offered in the park. (Photo Courtesy rochesterlandscape.blogspot.com)

 

 

Bricks from an old building are now a focal point for those strolling by (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

During one of my visits to the High Line, a couple was getting married in the park. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

The grasses on the High Line are particularly well chosen and provide visual interest when summer flowers have long passed. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

In the newest section of the park, open views are offset with jungle-like plantings that enclose passing pedestrians. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

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.

 

This is my favorite view of the Empire State Building from the High Line. These spires and rooftops can only be appreciated from above. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

The IAC building designed by Frank Gehry as seen through a vine-covered fence (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

Brick Wall

The side of an old industrial building (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

The High Line provides a fascinating glimpse at water towers, roof tiles, chimneys, church steeples, and skyscrapers. The Empire State building and the Statue of Liberty are both visible from the park. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

Roof Tops

Walking the High Line gives pedestrians a peak at many hidden architectural features in the neighborhood (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

Sarah Sze's "Still Life with Landscape" caught the attention of this family; the kids literally shouted with joy when they discovered the sparrows eating seed from the installation. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

Sarah Sze's "Still Life with Landscape" acts as a bird, butterfly and insect observatory, with perches, feeding spots and birdbaths throughout. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

Emerging from the shooting perspective lines of the landscape of the High Line, Sze's sculpture extends through space like a perspective drawing in three dimensions. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

Not only are the benches and decks well-designed, but the color of the wood echoes the bark of the birch trees planted nearby. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

A close-up allows the viewer to appreciate the striking color relationships between the bench, the deck, and the bark of this birch tree. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

Autumn leaves glow against this steel and glass skyscraper. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

One of the remarkable features of the High Line is the view it offers of the surrounding rooftops and water towers. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

The Empire State Building rises in the distance. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

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.

 

A bricked up window in an old industrial building (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

(Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

Four light bulbs shine from the windows of a nearby building (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

Another view of the Empire State Building (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

Plantings like these provide visual interest in autumn and winter. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

The High Line in Autumn (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

(Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

In some places the old railroad tracks have been incorporated into the landscape design (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

(Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

There are many canyon-like vistas from the park. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

Autumn Flowers (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

Plantings have been carefully chosen for their visual impact throughout the seasons. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

An apartment situated beside the High Line (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

View from the High Line (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

(Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

(Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

Spencer Finch's "The River That Flows Both Ways" in the Chelsea Market Passage (Photo Courtesy Phil Photostream via Flickr Commons)

 

 

From a tugboat drifting on Manhattan's west side and past the High Line, Finch photographed the Hudson River's surface once every minute. The color of each pane of glass was based on a single pixel point in each photograph and arranged chronologically in the tunnel’s existing steel mullions. Time is translated into a grid, reading from left to right and top to bottom, capturing the varied reflective and translucent conditions of the water's surface. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

In "River That Flows Both Ways" the work, like the river, is experienced differently depending on the light levels and atmospheric conditions of the site. The glass reveals Finch's impossible quest for the color of water. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

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?

 

Artist Sarah Sze is known for her intricate installations that shape space with hundreds or thousands of interconnected sculptural elements. For the High Line, Sze created an elaborate metropolis of architectural models that are bisected by the High Line path itself. The sculpture forms an open gateway that visually frames the views to the north and south, as well as allows park visitors to physically enter and pass through the space it outlines. (Photo Courtesy Special KRB via Flickr Commons)

 

 

The birdhouses and bird feeders incorporated into Sarah Sze's "Still Life with Landscape" echo the design of the buildings seen in the distance. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

Sparrows eating from Sarah Sze's "Still Life with Landscape" (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

Although taxis and traffic rush below the old railway, grasses, trees, and flowers provide a much-needed respite while strolling along the High Line. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

Berries provide visual interest in fall and winter. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

Grasses planted on The High Line (Photo Courtesy Tanenhaus via Flickr Commons)

 

 

A view of a cross street in autumn (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

The same view in winter (Photo Courtesy Friends of the High Line)

 

 

(Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

(Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

(Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

Faded advertisements can still be seen on the side of some old buildings. The wedding party is visible in the background. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

A close-up of the faded advertisements (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

Grasses nicely offset the glass and metal building surrounding the park. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

In the right light, something as simple as cables climbing the side of a building can be eye-catching. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

A tree in late afternoon (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

Another view of Frank Gehry's IAC Building (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

The High Line has breathed new life into Chelsea, a neighborhood that was already bustling with art galleries and restaurants. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

(Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

Looking up from the High Line (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

(Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

(Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

(Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

 

The High Line in winter (Photo Courtesy Friends of the High Line)

 

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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By | 2016-11-11T21:53:33+00:00 12.26.11|Design, Greatest Hits, Images, Spaces|1 Comment

About the Author:

I’ve spent almost 20 years helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. (One friend likes to call me “the arts enabler.”) From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I've also done time at an arts magazine, a library, an art museum, and a raptor rehabilitation center. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, curating, and creative projects full-time. In 2015 I was named a “Top 100 Artist, Innovator, Creative” by Origin magazine. I've appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, and in 2017 I was the recipient of the Wampler Art Professorship at James Madison University. I am the founder of the Gwarlingo Salon series, which connects artists like DJ Spooky with rural audiences in the Monadnock region. In 2017 my collaborator Corwin Levi and I will publish our first book, Mirror Mirrored, which combines Grimms’ fairy tales with vintage illustration remixes and the work of contemporary artists like Kiki Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, and Amy Cutler. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, but have called New Hampshire home since 1999. My studio is located in the historic, mill village of Harrisville. I miss fried okra, the early southern spring, and restaurants that stay open past 9:00 p.m., but rural life agrees with me. In New Hampshire I can see the stars, go kayaking or snowshoeing, watch bald eagles fish in the lake, and focus on my creative work in silence. I no longer have to worry about traffic jams; deer, wild turkeys, and frost heaves are the primary road hazards here. Although I live in the country, I’m fortunate enough to be part of a vibrant arts community that extends beyond this small New England village. The quiet days are punctuated by regular travel and frequent visits to museums, theaters, readings, arts events, lectures, and open studios around the country. (You can read my full CV here.) Thanks for visiting Gwarlingo. I hope you'll be in touch.

One Comment

  1. Ryan Wilson December 20, 2011 at 8:09 pm

    Whoa, this is fantastic! I never knew about this. I now have a new destination to add to my schedule for my trip back stateside next summer.
    I agree with you that these places are about a change of perspective. That is so important. The way you see something physically, directly affects the way you are able to see it in a more abstract way. Change your perspective on things and you can change your perspective on “things.”
    I feel really lucky that the campus here is full of crazy buildings that are all rooftop decks and strange balconies. The thing is that most people don’t take advantage of them. Most of the students and teachers stay at street level, or on the lower floors. I discovered these places this past year and they have changed my outlook not only on the campus, the city, China, but, to sound overly dramatic, myself too. Every new one I step out onto (and I’ve only covered half of them) is a new look at my life here. I imagine that is what the highline does for New Yorkers who think they know their city.

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