Walking Manhattan’s High Line Park is like stepping into an artist’s rendering: everyone is smiling, everything is clean, and the scenery is surreal.
With its grass, trees, and benches, the High Line is like a lot of other parks. But that’s where the similarities stop. Once an elevated railroad line, the linear park rises 30 feet above street level and currently extends for 19 blocks on the West Side, from West 30th Street to Gansevoort Street.
The High Line was born in 1934 after a century of pedestrian-locomotive showdowns (note: walkers never won). Known as the Lifeline of New York, it hauled goods to and from warehouses through their third-story loading bays.
The construction of the interstate highway system after World War II reduced the High Line’s freight traffic, and the southernmost sections were lopped off in the 1960s. The line shut down for good in 1980, and it quickly became an eyesore. Property owners who owned the land underneath the track were eager to see it go, and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani was among those who backed its demolition in the 1990s.
That’s when Joshua David and Robert Hammond got involved. Neither knew much about the track’s history nor had a desire to lead a preservation campaign–they just believed the High Line had more potential than to decay in a landfill. They recognized that no one else was going to do anything about it, so in 1999 they formed the grassroots group Friends of the High Line.
Despite all the red tape, design limitations, and lofty fundraising goals, the park slowly came to life over the next decade. Paris’ Promenade Plaintee, a former elevated rail line turned park, inspired the winning design contest entry, and CSX Railroad gave the High Line to New York City in 2005. Designers from all realms collaborated to create the once-in-a-lifetime park.
The first phase of the project opened in 2009 to overwhelming acclaim, and the second section opened to the public last year. Planning for the third and final segment, which will run past the West Side Railyards, is currently in the works.
The city picked up most of the $150 million construction tab, while the nonprofit Friends of the High Line operates the park for about $3 million per year. Private donors have been key to the project, most notably Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg. In turn, the walkway will generate an estimated $2 billion in new development.
I have followed the High Line’s progress for a while and visited for the first time last month. Prior to the visit, my girlfriend–a native New Yorker–emailed me to ask what I wanted to see in anticipation of my first visit to Manhattan. I could only name one place: the High Line. “The ONLY place?” she wrote back. “You are going to the greatest city in the world and you only want to go to one place? You are crazy.”
Though it was a blustery, cold day, many others like me were skipping Broadway shows, skyscraper views, and museums in favor of a stroll outside with their cameras. I walked the park from the glass elevator on West 23rd Street to West 15th Street and was very impressed by the carefully planned redesign. The steel railroad tracks remained as a constant reminder of the site’s industrial past. Carefully selected landscaping provided color amid the winter gray. The restored Art Deco ironwork looked fresh, yet the scars were not hidden. A projector with tiered seating faced a building’s wall painted white. Another seating area was positioned directly down 10th Avenue, a canyon through the architecture. Before turning back, I passed under the Chelsea Market, an al fresco dining spot during the summer, and caught my first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty off in the distance. It was a moment I will never forget, all thanks to a structure nobody wanted.