New York City’s newest park, the High Line, opened last summer two blocks from my home, and, much as I love it, I understand that I missed out.
All the cool people got to see the High Line before it was turned into “New York City’s newest park.” Among them the actor Ethan Hawke (who played on it with his brother when they were kids), New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik (who wrote a rhapsodic piece for that magazine in 2001, when the defunct railway was still under a demolition order), and the photographer Joel Sternfeld (who got to photograph the place for a year).
There are probably dozens of people—architects and developers, fashion designers and art gallery owners, more actors (Edward Norton and Kevin Bacon), even my very own TMN editor—who had the pleasure of seeing the High Line in its abandoned, melancholic state, either because they were trying to save it, or because they were smart enough to sneak up.
I was not one of them.
When I moved to the corner of Jane and Washington Streets in the West Village in 2008, I didn’t know the history of the High Line, but I’d heard it was a new park that was going to open where there seemed to be nothing but rusted steel. I hoped for a lush, green ribbon; a place where I might take the children to run. There was so little activity that summer, however, that I was sure the opening would be delayed. I was a new New Yorker, but already I could tell that enthusiastically embracing something that altered the cityscape was not popular. For every supporter of a given project, there were always many people who had fought hard for something else and planned to grumble about it (e.g., the Atlantic Yards, the Jets stadium, the current rehabiliation of Washington Square park). I assumed the opening would be delayed for years.
The High Line is to walking as a surfboard is to swimming: easy to dismiss until you realize what you’ve been missing.Then in July 2008, while we were still unpacking boxes, the writer Sean Wilsey accused the final design in the New York Times of a failure of imagination. He argued that the High Line, running from Gansevort Street to West 34th, “joins two neighborhoods that have been in historic opposition: Greenwich Village, the historical heart of bohemia, and Midtown, a center of global capitalism and corporate culture. To span the gulf, it runs through a largely defunct slaughterhouse district, a gallery district, low-income housing projects, the center of gay Manhattan, and heaps of old warehouses. Can’t this be a place to dream?”
Wilsey’s dreams included farm animals, year-round snow, and a roller coaster. Sounded good. He argued that it ought to be a project on the scale of the “W.P.A.’s greatest hits” and called the current design, with its reliance on the native plants already rooted there, “middlebrow.”
I was persuaded, and if the High Line ever opened, I thought I’d probably walk along cataloguing my own disappointments. Finally it did open, in June 2009, and I remained doubtful for a time. On all my first walks I thought of Wilsey’s words: not imaginative enough, not imaginative enough. God knows I didn’t want to be the only New Yorker who failed to see that, who thought it was just fine.
To be fair, Wilsey was writing before the financial crisis would force many to redefine priorities. But more important, what he did not know, what no one knew except for the aforementioned cool and lucky people, was how it actually feels to be up there.
The High Line is to walking as a surfboard is to swimming: easy to dismiss as irrelevant or unnecessary until you try it and realize what you’ve been missing. I don’t know how it happens exactly, but walking the High Line, unimpeded by the rhythms of street corners and traffic lights, inspires a tenderness. It’s as if looking over the city from this height, you want to look after it. Everything seems beautiful: dirty store awnings on 10th Avenue, car lots and building supply yards, butcher shops and art galleries, the spiderwebs of broken windows, even the backs of billboards.
The simplicity of the park fuels the feeling. If there were water features or fancy beds of roses, you’d be looking at those instead of marveling at how this park and the city interact. By mid-autumn I began to acknowledge that it was not the green ribbon I’d hoped for, but neither was it the disappointment I’d expected. I liked it, and I started to understand the battle that had been waged.
The High Line was built in the 1930s to ease the delivery of freight to warehouses along Manhattan’s West Side. It was abandoned in 1980 and for years local property owners lobbied for its removal, but several complicated legal issues involving—what else?—cost and liability, kept the High Line up. Meanwhile, two local residents, Robert Hammond and Joshua David, happened to sit next to each other one night at a community board meeting in 1999, each there to support whatever group was working to save the High Line. When they discovered there was no such group, Friends of the High Line was born. Their goal: save the old elevated track for what they hoped would be, at the very least, “thoughtful” development. In 2005, after holding off the hostile Guilani administration, converting the Bloomberg administration, and raising a lot of money, the city approved the rezoning plan that would preserve the High Line.
On one side you had—you always have—the people who would build roller coasters (or, another idea from the open contest the Friends of the High Line held in 2003: a 22-block-long swimming pool). On the other side, you have the people who feel as little as possible should be changed. Their vision: the beauty of the High Line lies in the evidence that, even in Manhattan, plants can and do just take root and grow. Coneflower, lamb’s ears, onion grass, and clover. One of the earliest plans put forth by the High Line designers involved building nothing more than walkways over the meadow the track had become. Too much industrial waste made that plan unsafe, but the idea was clear enough: nature had claimed the railway; we’d be presumptuous to reclaim it.
Walking the High Line now, in late winter, I am struck by how carefree the landscape looks. The blackened seed pods and long, snow-pressed grasses seem a bit neglected. Of course, they’re not, and it was pointed out in New York magazine a few years ago that one of the ironies of the High Line is that it is not nearly as “preserved” as it seems. In order to make it appear this way, the whole thing was stripped. Even the track was removed, then put back down again.
All right. Easy to mock. But it doesn’t seem all that surprising to me that concessions had to be made to make the place safe for millions of visitors. Liz Diller and Ric Scofidio, the chief High Line architects, have said they felt the main challenge they faced was to figure out how to bring the public up safely without destroying what everybody found so beautiful. The wildflowers and resilient grasses, the vision of nature fighting back, had charmed all who saw it, so Diller and Scofidio structured these conditions into their design.
The people who come to the High Line 20 or 30 years from now will love it too, and will believe they have found something special.The result is a concrete path that buckles and splits as it meanders, mimicking the ravages of time and plant invasion. Long cement girders lift slightly and without notice as they disappear into perennial beds gently designed by Piet Oudolf. In a regular park, people and plantings are rigorously separated. Think of the railings and mulch mounds that usually keep you away. The High Line’s integrated borders are really beautiful, but they have an interesting effect, too. When it is crowded, they can be a tripping hazard, so people slow down and watch their footing until they are proceeding as if…they were walking along an old, abandoned railway! I think this is kind of miraculous.
Other miracles include: very few joggers, blessedly few jog strollers, no dogs. Breathtaking light, I suspect because of the High Line’s proximity to the Hudson River; huge wooden deck chairs, a few of which roll along the track just north of Pier 54 (where the Titanic survivors arrived), as well as other narrow benches clustered in groups that look like migratory flocks. And also this: I have seen the crowd, when it is crowded on warm evenings and sunny weekends, sort itself to the right so that the pedestrian flow is smooth in both directions. For anyone who has logged time on the city’s sidewalks, that is a dream at least as great as a petting farm.
Wilsey ended his piece in the Times with a question. “What better than an old railroad to show us a way to the future?” It may be the right question, but he was tone-deaf when listening for the answer. The future ought to be recognizing the quiet brilliance of a place as it is, rather than imposing our will on it.
This summer will be the park’s second, and its popularity is already dramatically changing the landscape around it. Expensive hotels and other high rises are filling in the suddenly much more valuable adjacent real estate. I suspect it’s only a matter of time before I’m considered part of the lucky group that knew the High Line park as it once was, before everything around it was changed and beautified. But then it occurs to me that the people who come to the High Line 20 or 30 years from now will love it too, and will believe they have found something special. Amid all the battles that sometimes fill this city, it’s easy to forget that the people inclined to take root here do so because they are resilient and love the New York they find.