West Side Superstar
(Editor’s Note: All three of the High Line’s sections are now open.)
The High Line has appeared on every “To Do In New York” list since the first of its three sections opened in June 2009. Like any park, you can walk, read, chat, eat, relax, watch people, have people watch you, fall in love or have “the talk.”
What makes this public space unique, aside from its architecture, is its journey. It is three stories above Manhattan’s streets and has three stories to tell. First, it was an industrial railway. Then an abandoned, political hot potato. Now it is an urban planning superstar known around the world.
The High Line: 2 Sections Down, 1 To Go
On Tuesday, June 7th, 2011, I walked along the park’s second section for the first time. At the 30th Street exit/entrance, I asked a park employee a few questions before leaving.
“When did the High Line’s second section open?”
“Today, at about 1 pm.”
“Yeah, there was a lot of press here. They were going to open it tomorrow, but when the mayor finished speaking, they just decided to open it to everyone. The official opening is tomorrow, though.”
I had stumbled upon opening day without realizing. Nice!
His face changed when I asked about the park’s third and final section opening.
“It’s going to be a while.”
Ah, yes, the P word. Politics is the reason why the High Line wasn’t built until the 1930s; why it it was later left to rot from disuse; why it was almost torn down; and why it rose like a phoenix from its rusted ashes. Politics and the High Line are old chums.
10th Avenue: Land Of Cowboys and Prairies
From 1847 to the 1930s, Manhattan’s West Side residents acted out a morbid ritual so often that 10th Avenue became known as “Death Avenue.” The ritual started each time someone was run over by the train traveling down the middle of the avenue.
A thick, thuddy thump was predictably followed by screams. Feet rustled, windows went up, doors opened, horse carriages stopped. The sensitive covered their mouths and their children’s eyes.
Somewhere nearby, an old woman perhaps, would invariably say, I heard it clear as a bell. Pity. Who was it this time?
Everyone agreed that the middle of the street was no place for a train, but nobody did anything. The trains kept a’rollin’ and a’thumpin’ at street level for another 70-plus years.
Eventually, hired men on horseback would ride down 10th Ave. waving red flags and screaming something akin to, “Hey, you, get out of the way!” at pedestrians. These West Side Cowboys rode until the High Line was built in the 1930s. No more trains on street level.
The High Line closed in 1980, a casualty of both the growing trucking business and New York’s declining industrial base. Wildflowers and tall grasses soon sprouted, living quiet, rent-free lives on Manhattan’s only prairie land. Birds, insects and the occasional late-night urban explorer also appreciated the solitude.
For the next 20 years, politicians and property owners jawboned in agreement about tearing it down. What nobody could agree on was who should pay for it. Politics.
Friends in High (Line) Places
The Meatpacking District, the neighborhood around the High Line’s southern section, was very different in the 1980s. By day, the stench of animal blood and flesh from dozens of meat wholesalers embedded itself into the neighborhood’s cobblestoned streets. After sunset, the people who go bump in the night took over.
A cafe opened in the 1990s, then two. Restaurants, art galleries, fashion stores came next. All that eating, shopping and gallery-ing is tiring, so hotels went up. No-man’s-land was now hip.
Rents increased and interested parties tipped their noses up. The aroma of money now overpowered the stench of blood. The demolition ball swung closer to the High Line.
In 1999, Robert Hammond and Joshua David, two area residents, listened to their instincts: build a park on the High Line and the surrounding area will blossom. But how do you build a park out of old rails?
They were encouraged by Peter Obletz’s legal skirmishes in the 1980s that prevented the High Line’s destruction. Through Friends Of The High Line, the organization they founded, Hammond and David broadcasted their message using old techniques (cold-calling, flyers) and new ones (websites, email campaigns).
The magic wind of publicity blew toward Mayor Bloomberg, Kevin Bacon, Hillary Clinton and others who liked the idea. Phones rang, letters were written, meetings attended, donations received. Politics.
Between 1999 and 2009, their idea evolved from pie-in-the-sky to park-in-the-sky. The can do’ers had beaten the can’t do’ers. The underdog won. New York City won. Everyone who visits the High Line won.
Please see Getting To The High Line for public transportation options and elevator, restroom and bike rack locations.