End of the line, the start of the park. The High Line, New York City. © J. Ashley Nixon
From 1933 until 1980, trains used to run on an elevated track above the streets of Chelsea in Manhattan’s West Side. The steel construction was designed to deliver freight in and out of factories and warehouses. And make those movements of goods safer. The congestion and collisions caused by street-level locomotive traffic had got so bad that parts of Tenth, Eleventh and Twelve avenues were locally known, and feared, as “Death Avenue”. By 1960, truck transport on the new interstate highway system, proved to be too much competition and part of the rail link closed. The last train running was in 1980, three boxcars full of frozen turkeys, so the story goes.
For almost twenty years, points were made for re-using the track for passenger service. Others countered with pleas to do away with it. Demolish and make way for some more high rise buildings. A local community residents group in favour of saving the line mobilized around 1999. Spearheaded by Robert Hammond and Joshua David, Friends of the High Line was founded (@highlinenyc). Hammond and David’s book tells the fascinating story of their decade-long efforts, alongside those of a networked host of committed supporters, to resist demolition orders, win city government support and commission architects and planners to come up with an inspiring design for a park in the sky. They even crafted a cute logo on the side.
The opening ceremony for this magnificent green corridor was on June 8, 2009. Four million people visited within two years. On sunny weekends there can be 100,000 people turning up to walk, sit and chat and watch one another saunter by. Although distinctively designed with local people and their recreational needs in mind, many, like myself are out of town visitors. They come to experience urban ecology, intertwined with contemporary art and design by Ed Ruscha, Eduardo Kobra and others, juxtaposed with stunning modern architecture, such as Frank Gehry’s first building in New York City, views of the Empire State Building and more.
What was seen for ten years and more as a crazy scheme is now an inspiring example of urban resilience and renewal at its very best.
I walked the High Line with some of my family early one sunny Sunday morning in November.