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
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
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.
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.
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.’
Room for a view
In the midst of a
cacophony of cars and cabs on the historic cobblestones at Gansevoort Street is
a grey metal staircase leading up to a zone of relative quiet amid a grove of
birch trees. This is the start of the High Line Park, the first section of
which opened in June 2009 and stretches north, crossing over 10th Avenue and
through the Chelsea Market to West 20th Street.
staircase’s first landing, the view includes the windows of the niche boutiques
that now decorate the formerly drab and industrial Meatpacking District where
butchers once dominated – Ted Baker, Trina Turk, Tory Burch and the High Line’s
star benefactress, Diane von Furstenberg. These days, designer clothing on
mannequins takes precedence over carcasses on hooks.
There’s a sudden
roar from below: revellers are sampling pints of German beer and cabbage-sized
pretzels at the Standard Hotel’s Biergarten. Opened in early 2009, the hotel
literally straddles the High Line: the Standard’s columns rise above the park
like a grey rocket, albeit one made of brick and glass.
Beneath it, at
street level, are cafés, the raucous Biergarten and the stylish Standard Grill,
where designer-clad patrons click-clack across the floor – made from a
composition of copper pennies – and lounge on curvaceous banquettes made from
soft, berry-coloured leather.
Out on the
footpath by the hotel, Michael Adams, an editor who has lived in the
neighbourhood for 20 years, is walking his golden retriever, Pym. He saves his
forays upstairs for human companions: he has to. The High Line conveys
pedestrians only: no bicycles, skateboards or dogs.
‘I don’t mind that
dogs aren’t allowed up there,’ he says. ‘The High Line is a little ocean of
tranquillity whose sole reason for existing seems to be to make people happy.
It’s a kind of masterpiece.’
Near 14th Street,
a toe-deep water feature spills over the walkway, encouraging pedestrians to
remove their shoes and wade through a rippling pond as a rustic border of
cattails catches the breeze. Women take off their sandals. Men remove their
sneakers. Babies rush right in and plop themselves in the shallows.
queue for ice lollies at the People’s Pops stall, where a handchalked sign
describes today’s flavoured ices, made with locally grown, sustainable fruit
and herbs: a pungent toasted yellow plum and appealingly astringent apricot
& lavender. Further along, above 15th Street, the Porch café serves
artisanal beers on tap. Chilled-out groups chat and drink at umbrella tables,
looking out to the river as cruise-liners pass by the Chelsea Piers. Beer and
wine are confined to the Porch premises, but the ice lollies, like the purple
asters and radiant coneflowers blooming in the gravel track-beds, are enjoyed
At the Sunken
Overlook, the 10th Avenue traffic below doubles as the entertainment: wooden
benches form a mini-amphitheatre where viewers experience a voyeuristic slice
of hectic street life through a four-sectioned window. Nearby, passers-by
experiment with the ‘talking’ drinking fountains – pressing buttons to take a
sip and listen to poetry, singing and helpful messages.
says one. ‘However, please do not lick the fountain.’
Life in the slow lane
The park’s second
phase, from West 20th north to West 30th Street, opened in June 2011. This
added 10 blocks to its length and introduced new features. When frequenters of
the first phase of the High Line commented that the park lacked a picnic lawn,
the designers took note.
At 23rd Street,
there is now an emerald green lawn that runs for half a block. It has become a
magnet for city folk who want to feel ‘cushiony’ grass, not cement, beneath
to the fore in this section. Different areas have names such as Chelsea
Thicket, Wildflower Field and Woodland Flyover. The authenticity of this green
belt, designed by landscape architects James Corner Field Operations and Dutch
horticulturalist Piet Udolf, is confirmed by the presence of bees, dragonflies
and even crickets, whose cheerful chatter can often be heard on summer
‘Someone asked me
how we managed to pipe in the sound of crickets,’ says High Line co-founder
Robert Hammond. ‘I said, “We didn’t. Those are the real thing.”’
The High Line
gardeners are articulate advocates for their flora. Johnny Linville, the
horticulture foreman, is busy yanking up weeds and asking pedestrians not to
sample the plump, dark serviceberries.
‘The artistry of
this job lies in how you maintain and manicure a landscape without having it
look maintained and manicured. By design, it’s a wild landscape, so you have to
hide any evidence of grooming,’ he says, looking out over the beds of Korean
feather grass, yarrow, black-eyed Susans and coreopsis by the Meadow Walk.
‘A weed is, by
definition, just a plant in the wrong place,’ Linville notes, as if apologising
to them. ‘There are mornings when I’m up here weeding and I forget I’m 30 feet
above the city. It’s a kind of magical feeling. I like to think this is a place
people are escaping to.’
New Yorkers can
come here to escape some of the problems of the city streets below. The crime
rate in the park has been a refreshing surprise – it is zero. Feeling safe
exploring the High Line’s nooks and crannies, people also seem to behave less
like strangers and more like conspirators in an urban experiment.
happens often and when a toddler in a Ramones T-shirt pauses to perform a
wobbly dance in front of a lone saxophonist crooning a melancholy rendition of
La Vie en Rose above 20th Street, walkers stop, smile and soak it in.
chef and entrepreneur Tom Colicchio runs a restaurant, Colicchio & Sons,
just west of the High Line at 15th Street, but for the summer of 2011 he also
organised The Lot on Tap – a casual amalgam of food trucks and locally sourced
keg wine and beer at The Lot, a temporary public plaza beneath the High Line’s
30th Street terminus.
Lot occupies land where there are plans to build a condominium tower in 2012.
However, Mr Colicchio hopes that a different space can be found for it nearby.
He can see the High Line from his apartment on Horatio Street and often uses it
to walk to work.
active,’ he says, ‘but even so, there’s a sense of not rushing to or from some
place, an old-time feeling of slowing things down.’
The next level
The High Line ends
too soon. At 30th Street, the ‘Viewing Spur’ – an empty billboard frame that
affords views over the surrounding neighbourhood – overlooks a temporary
roller-skating rink and active rail yards to the west of Penn Station. At the
park’s end is a chainlink fence, but the High Line itself stretches on another
half a mile to West 34th Street, its green, overgrown expanse still untamed.
Soon it won’t be
necessary to stop here and descend to street level. The High Line’s third and
final phase has been planned for completion in 2014, just in time for the
original’s 80th birthday. Costing $70m (£45m), it will curve west toward the
Hudson River and terminate at 34th Street.
will continue to pop up as this one invigorates the whole area. Even now,
constructions are appearing along the structure’s length, not least the $435m
(£280m) Whitney Museum of American Art, presaging a new cultural anchor
downtown. The High Line has come a long way from that community meeting in
1999, when the structure looked certain to be destroyed. ‘Josh and I had no
experience,’ says Robert, ‘not just with elevated railroads but with urban
redevelopment in general. I hope this project proves that it’s possible for
people to look around their own neighbourhoods, and if they see something worth
saving, to make a difference.’
The article 'Walking New York City’s High Line' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.