Walking New York City’s High Line
The High Line’s emerald green picnic lawn is a popular hangout for city sun seekers. (Matt Munro)
On the western fringe of Manhattan, parallel to the Hudson River, a steel bridge hangs nine metres in the air, like a new horizon. This is the High Line Park, once an expanse of derelict elevated railway that was sentenced to death by demolition, now reinvented as a pathway. From Gansevoort Street in the former industrial hub of the Meatpacking District, it runs north as an uninterrupted mile-and-a-half-long promenade through artsy Chelsea and the Garment District to 30th Street, invigorated by art installations and more than 100,000 indigenous shrubs, trees and flowers. Beneath the promenade, the 10th Avenue traffic muscles its way uptown with its customary urgency. Yet on the High Line, there is no driver bullying or interference from crosswalks and commerce. Here, it’s the old-fashioned, open-air enchantment of walking, surrounded by nature and interacting with art, all while being suspended above the city.
The High Line’s history is humbly utilitarian, yet it is a masterpiece of urban infrastructure that has twice succeeded in fulfilling its function: the first time around, its mission was commercial and industrial; this second time, the mission is aesthetic.
From 1934, its 13 miles of elevated track carried tonnes of carcasses and other produce to the factories and meatpacking warehouses that gave the district its name. It was built as a public safety measure. Before the High Line was in place, goods thundered along a 10th Avenue rail line, but so many pedestrians were killed by the dangerously heavy freight trains it was nicknamed ‘Death Avenue’. Men on horseback were hired to ride out before the trains, waving a red flag to warn approaching traffic and pedestrians; they were called ‘West Side Cowboys’. However, a more effective system was required, and the High Line was born.
It prospered until the ’50s when road freight became more popular, and in the ’60s, its southern section was demolished. The final train, bearing three carloads of frozen turkeys, ran in 1980. The structure was chained off and abandoned to nature. Along its length, high grasses, wildflowers and even trees sprang up, creating a nine metre-high streak of greenery in the Lower West Side. Considered beautiful by some and an eyesore by others, the obsolete structure sparked a feverish lobby by property owners and real estate speculators anxious to build to their heart’s content where it once stood. Then-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani sided with the demolitionists. The High Line was verging on extinction.
In 1999, sheer coincidence sat a couple of urban history buffs, Robert Hammond and Joshua David, next to each other at one of the obligatory community board meetings convened to discuss the High Line’s imminent demise. Both men were stunned that no preservationist or historian spoke up for saving the structure. After leaving the meeting, they hatched the idea for a non-profit conservation organisation – Friends of the High Line. First they investigated the feasibility of preservation, then they came up with a plan for repurposing the railway as an elevated park in the spirit of the Promenade Plantée, a tree-lined walkway atop a railway viaduct in Paris.
The pair worked together to draw attention to the High Line, engaging local artists, designers and galleries, and successfully managed to stop the demolition order. A contest for the best park design followed, attracting entries from 36 countries, and raising a staggering $130m (£84m). Friends of the High Line grew from the shared vision of two men to a cause célèbre, with supporters including Bette Midler, Edward Norton, Hillary Clinton and Diane von Furstenberg.
The fashion designer’s studio virtually winks at pedestrians from 14th Street. She and her billionaire spouse, media executive Barry Diller, have made significant financial contributions to the park, and one of the most popular High Line features bears their name. Regardless of the time of year, sun worshippers congregate on the Diller-von Furstenberg Sundeck. Sunset worshippers do, too, reclining on wooden chaises in the late afternoon to take in the view of the New Jersey shoreline across the Hudson River.
Robert Hammond stands on the High Line just south of his office on West 20th Street. ‘I was always secretly scared that I wouldn’t like what we built,’ he says. ‘It was such a lonely, magical space before, I was afraid we wouldn’t be able to recreate that, but I actually like it better now. The design isn’t just beautiful, people act differently on the High Line, as if it changes their mood. People hold hands, they let down their guard.’