Sunday, September 30, 2012

Walking the High Line

Yee-ha! Manhattan cowboy! (Courtesy
One of the items on my local bucket list is walking on the High Line in New York City. This past Sunday, my immediate family and I did just that.

For those of you not from the New York City area, here’s a little history on the High Line, courtesy of

The High Line was built in the 1930s, as part of an infrastructure project called the West Side Improvement. It was an elevated freight rail line that operated 30 feet above street level, removing dangerous trains from the streets of Manhattan's largest industrial district.
The original train lines, constructed in 1847, were built at ground level. Unfortunately, from 1851 to 1929, so many collisions occurred between trains and street-level traffic that 10th Avenue became known as Death Avenue (very Goth). For safety, men on horses, called the West Side Cowboys, would ride in front of trains waving red flags (see above photo).

After years of public debate about the hazard, the City and State of New York and the New York Central Railroad agreed upon the West Side Improvement Project, which included the High Line. (Back in the day when building/maintaining infrastructure was seen as a good thing.) The entire project was 13 miles long, eliminated 105 street-level railroad crossings and added 32 acres to Riverside Park. It cost over $150 million in 1930 dollars—more than $2 billion today. 

Residents decorate windows for passers by.
In 1934, the High Line opened, running from 34th Street to St. John’s Park Terminal at Spring Street. It connected directly to factories and warehouses, allowing trains to roll right inside buildings. Milk, meat, produce, and raw and manufactured goods were transported without causing street-level traffic.

Unfortunately, the advent of the car and its corollary, the truck, had a chilling effect on mass transportation. As interstate trucking grew in the 1950s, the volume of rail traffic dropped in New York and nationally. In the 1960s, with our usual panache for disregarding history and razing everything in sight, the southernmost section of the High Line was demolished. The last train ran on the remaining tracks in 1980. Ironically, it was pulling three carloads of frozen turkeys.

Architecture along the park is fascinating.
No trains have run on the High Line since. Fortunately, a group of New Yorkers had a vision for the derelict tracks, which were under the threat of demolition in the late 1990s. What they proposed was to keep the structure, which was essentially sound, and turn it into a park. 

A drummer enjoys the day.
The project gained the city's support in 2002. The High Line south of 30th Street was donated to the city by CSX Transportation Inc. in 2005. The design team of landscape architects James Corner Field Operations, with architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro, created the High Line's appearance with guidance from a community of enthusiastic High Line supporters. 

Construction on the park began in 2006. The first section, from Gansevoort Street to West 20th Street, opened June 9, 2009. The second section, from West 20th Street to West 30th Street, opened in spring, 2011. 
One section of the High Line has windows out onto the street.

Elevated rail platforms are being converted into parks in other cities as well. The city of Paris successfully converted a similar rail viaduct into an elevated park called the Promenade Plantée in 1993. Projects similar to the High Line are in early stages in St. Louis, Philadelphia, Jersey City, Chicago and Rotterdam.

About one third of the remaining track remains undeveloped. While the High Line's use as a park is secure below West 30th Street, the future of the northernmost section, around the West Side Rail Yards, depends upon plans now being developed by the State-run MTA and a private developer. This section of the High Line (West 30th Street to West 34th Street) may be fully preserved, altered or removed. As someone who has had the opportunity to enjoy this wonderful park, my vote would be to expand the park rather than remove the tracks. After all, the platform is structurally sound and architecture of this magnitude is unlikely to reappear any time soon. 
The Statue of Liberty peeks through the opening to the right.