The High Line: Manhattan’s West Side Superstar
The High Line now appears on every Things to do in New York list. That wasn’t always the case.
It’s three stories above Manhattan and has three stories to tell. First, it was an industrial railway. Then, an abandoned, political hot potato. Today, it’s an urban planning superstar known worldwide.
Besides its architecture, what makes this public space unique is its history and journey. Its past aside, however, the High Line is also just like any other park as well. A place where you can walk, read, chat, eat, relax, watch people, have people watch you, fall in love, or have the talk.
The High Line: A 3-Section Park
(Editor’s Note: All three of the High Line’s sections are now open.)
The first of the park’s three planned sections opened in June of 2009. Two years later, on 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!
When I asked about the park’s third and final section opening, his face and delivery quickly changed.
“It’s going to be a while.”
Ah, yes, the P word. Politics is 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 routine so often that 10th Avenue became known as Death Avenue. The routine 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 at pedestrians something akin to, Hey, you, get out of the way! 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 agreed on was who should pay for it. Politics.
High Line Alchemy: Turning Blood into Gold
The Meatpacking District, the neighborhood surrounding the High Line’s southern section, was very different in the 1980s. By day, the stench of animal blood emanated from every cobblestone in the area. The ripest varieties were, of course, distilled in the summer.
Inside the dozens of meat processing establishments, fresh, semi-fresh, and rotted animal flesh was cut, chopped, gutted, washed, disposed of, and shipped. A rhythmic, bloody ritual that began in the wee hours and continued till late morn’.
By the time the sun reached its zenith, the meatpackers were home. When the sun set, the people who go bump in the night took over. High heels, cigarette butts, and spilled drinks absorbing and eroding the day’s accumulated animal blood.
Later, when night was stillest, the meatpackers would arrive anew, ready to repeat their red, rhythmic ritual. The clanking of their black, metal lunchboxes signaling to the lipstick-smeared night crawlers that it was time to retreat back to parts unknown. This cycle continued into the 1990s, until…
A cafe opened, then two. Restaurants, art galleries, and fashion boutiques soon followed. All that eating, shopping and gallery-ing is tiring, so hotels went up. No-man’s-land was now stylish.
Friends in High (Line) Places
Rents increased and interested parties tipped their noses up. The stench of money now overpowered the aroma 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?
Peter Obletz’s legal skirmishes in the 1980s to prevent the High Line’s destruction encouraged them. 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 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 beat the can’t do’ers. The underdog won. New York City won. Everyone who visits the High Line won.