Every city, in every part of the world, is struggling with repossessing and redesigning urban wastelands and abandoned infrastructure. While many get torn down to make way for newer developments, some get left behind, derelict and dark reminders of plans gone awry and life passing by. They become save havens for criminal activities, for waste to accumulate, and often become ugly realities we avert our eyes from and quickly drive past.
The High Line viaduct, then a portion of the New York Connecting Railroad’s West Side Line, opened to trains in 1934. It originally ran from 34th Street to St. John’s Park Terminal at Spring Street, and was designed to go through the centre of blocks rather than over the avenue. It connected directly to factories and warehouses, allowing trains to load and unload their cargo inside buildings. Milk, meat, produce, and raw and manufactured goods could be transported and unloaded without disturbing traffic on the streets. This also reduced the load for the Bell Laboratories Building (which has housed the Westbeth Artists Community since 1970), as well as for the former Nabisco plant in the Chelsea Market building, which were served from protected sidings within the structures.
The growth of interstate trucking in the 1950s led to a drop in rail traffic throughout the nation, so that by 1960, the southernmost section of the line was demolished. This section started at Gansevoort Street and ran down Washington Street as far as Spring Street just north of Canal Street, representing almost half of the line. The last train on the remaining part of the line was operated by Conrail in 1980.
In the mid-1980s, a group of property owners with land under the line lobbied for the demolition of the entire structure. By late 1990s it was overgrown with wild grasses, shrubs, and rugged trees – an ugly relic in an urban city. Finally, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani ordered the track to be demolished.
Like we saw in Dublin, in New York City as well a group of concerned and creative citizens stepped up, to explore alternative solutions for High Line. In 1999, the nonprofit Friends of the High Line was formed by Joshua David and Robert Hammond, residents of the neighbourhood that the line ran through. They advocated for the line’s preservation and reuse as public open space, so that it would become an elevated park or greenway, similar to the Promenade Plantée in Paris.
CSX Transportation, which owned the High Line, had given photographer Joel Sternfeld permission to photograph the line for a year. These photographs of the natural beauty of the meadow-like wildscape of the railway, discussed in an episode of the documentary series Great Museums, were used at public meetings whenever the subject of saving the High Line was discussed. Diane von Fürstenberg, who had moved her New York City headquarters to the Meatpacking District in 1997, organized fund-raising events for the campaign in her studio, along with her husband, Barry Diller. Broadened community support of public redevelopment of the High Line for pedestrian use grew, and in 2004, the New York City government committed $50 million to establish the proposed park. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council Speakers Gifford Miller and Christine C. Quinn were important supporters. In total, funders of the High Line Park raised more than $150 million (equivalent to $165,449,000 in 2016).
A quick timeline of what followed:
2002-2003. The planning framework for the High Line’s preservation and reuse begins. A study done by Friends of the High Line finds that the High Line project is economically rational, and leads to an open ideas competition, Designing the High Line.
March–September 2004. Friends of the High Line and the Ciy of New York conduct a process to select a design team for the High Line. The selected team is James Corner Field Operations, a landscape architecture firm, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and Piet Oudolf, planting designer.
2005–2006. The City accepts ownership of the High Line which is donated by CSX Transportation, Inc. in November 2005; Groundbreaking is celebrated in April 2006.
June 9, 2009. Section 1 (Gansevoort Street to West 20th Street) opens to the public.
June 8, 2011. Section 2 (West 20th Street to West 30th Street) opens to the public.
April–September 2012. The New York City Planning Commission approves a zoning text amendment for High Line at the Rail Yards. Groundbreaking is celebrated on the High Line at the Rail Yards September 20, 2012.
September 21, 2014. The third and northernmost section on the park, the High Line at the Rail Yards, opens to the public. Friends of the High Line celebrates 15 years of successful advocacy to preserve the entire structure.
New York is a city in which good things rarely happen easily and where good designs are often compromised, if they are built at all. The High Line is a happy exception, that rare New York situation in which a wonderful idea was not only realized but turned out better than anyone had imagined. It isn’t often in any city, let alone New York, that an unusually sophisticated concept for a public place makes its way through the design process, the political process, and the construction process largely intact. The designers were landscape architect James Corner of Field Operations and the architecture firm of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, who joined forces to produce the winning scheme in a competition that pitted them against such notables as Zaha Hadid, Steven Holl, and landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh.
Their plan struck a balance between refinement and the rough-hewn, industrial quality of the High Line. “We envisioned it as one long, meandering ribbon but with special episodes,” Corner told me. “We wanted to keep the feeling of the High Line consistent but at the same time have some variations.” The design included sleek wooden benches that appear to peel up from the park surface, but also kept many of the original train tracks, setting them into portions of the pavement and landscape. Working with Dutch landscape architect Piet Oudolf, Corner recommended a wide range of plantings, with heavy leanings toward tall grasses and reeds that recalled the wildflowers and weeds that had sprung up during the High Line’s long abandonment. (The line, which opened in 1934, was little used after the 1960s, although its final train, carrying frozen turkeys, didn’t travel down the track until 1980.)
High Line Today
Since opening in 2009, the High Line has become New York City’s second most visited cultural venue, attracting some four million visitors a year. It has been so popular that other cities are following suit, with plans to replicate the formula in London, Chicago, Philadelphia and Rotterdam, Netherlands.
Walking on the High Line is unlike any other experience in New York. You float about 25 feet above the ground, at once connected to street life and far away from it. You can sit surrounded by carefully tended plantings and take in the sun and the Hudson River views, or you can walk the line as it slices between old buildings and past striking new ones. I have walked the High Line dozens of times, and its vantage point, different from that of any street, sidewalk, or park, never ceases to surprise and delight. Not the least of the remarkable things about the High Line is the way, without streets to cross or traffic lights to wait for, ten blocks pass as quickly as two.
The black steel columns that once supported abandoned train tracks now hold up an elevated park 25 feet above the ground. The park’s attractions include naturalized plantings that are inspired by the self-seeded landscape that grew on the disused tracks and new, often unexpected views of the city and the Hudson River. Pebble-dash concrete walkways unify the trail, which swells and constricts, swinging from side to side, and divides into concrete tines that meld the hardscape with the planting embedded in railroad gravel mulch. Stretches of track and ties recall the High Line’s former use. Portions of track are adaptively re-used for rolling lounges positioned for river views. Most of the planting, which includes 210 species, is of rugged meadow plants, including clump-forming grasses, liatris and coneflowers, with scattered stands of sumac and smokebush, but not limited to American natives. At the Gansevoort end, a grove of mixed species of birch already provides some dappled shade by late afternoon.
The park extends from Gansevoort Street north to 30th Street where the elevated tracks turn west around the Hudson Yards development project to the Javits Convention Center on 34th Street. It remains open every day from 7 am to 10 pm.
(Pics: Amusing Planet)