High Line Park: the tranquil bridge across New York's bustle
On the western fringe of Manhattan, parallel to the Hudson River, a steel bridge hangs nine metres in the air. This is the High Line Park, an elevated urban parkway beating a new path through the sprawl of New York City.
From 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, invigorated by art installations and more than 100,000 indigenous shrubs, trees and flowers. The High Line offers a bird’s-eye view over some 30 city blocks. Beneath the promenade, the 10th Avenue traffic muscles its way uptown. Yet on the High Line, it’s the open-air enchantment of walking, surrounded by nature and interacting with art, all while being suspended above the city.
From abandoned bridge to city hotspot
From 1934, the High Line’s 13 miles of elevated track carried carcasses to factories and meatpacking warehouses. It prospered until the ’50s when road freight became more popular, and in the ’60s, its southern section was demolished. The final train ran in 1980 and the structure was abandoned to nature, sparking a feverish lobby by property owners and real estate speculators. Then-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani sided with the demolitionists. The High Line was verging on extinction.
In 1999, a couple of urban history buffs, Robert Hammond and Joshua David, sat next to each other at one of the board meetings to discuss the High Line’s imminent demise. They hatched the idea for a non-profit conservation organisation – Friends of the High Line. 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.
Reinventing the High Line
The pair engaged local artists, designers and galleries, and successfully managed to stop the demolition order. A contest for the best park design followed, raising a staggering $130m (£84m). Friends of the High Line grew to a cause célèbre, with supporters including Bette Midler, Edward Norton, Hillary Clinton and Diane von Furstenberg.
Robert Hammond stands on the High Line just south of his office on West 20th Street. ‘It was such a lonely, magical space before,’ he says, ‘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.’
Highlights of the High Line park
In the midst of 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.
Near 14th Street, a toe-deep water feature spills over the walkway, encouraging pedestrians to remove their shoes and wade through a rippling pond. 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. ‘Drink freely,’ says one. ‘However, please do not lick the fountain.’
The park’s second phase, from West 20th north to West 30th Street, has become a magnet for city folk who want to feel ‘cushiony’ grass, not cement, beneath their feet. The authenticity of this green belt is confirmed by the presence of bees, dragonflies and even crickets, whose cheerful chatter can often be heard on summer evenings.
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.
What's next for the High Line?
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.
The High Line has come a long way from that community meeting in 1999, when the structure looked certain to be destroyed. Robert says, ‘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 official High Line website has lots of useful information, including maps, opening hours and access information and High Line food stops for when you're so famished you couldn't possibly walk a step further.