the high line

The High Line –
Manhattan’s Newest Public Park

In the movie Wall-E, the opening sequence is a vision of a post-human American city. It’s a landfill where once gleaming steel structures are overrun by drifts of plastic. The vision served as a beautifully comical cautionary tale that restored a genuine heart to an otherwise machine of a movie company. If Wall-E is a cautionary tale, then New York’s newest public park, The High Line, is an unlikely fairy tale.

The High Line, which opened its first stage to the public on June 9, is an elevated public park that sits 30 feet in the sky atop a set of dilapidated train tracks that were abandoned 30 years ago. Designed by James Corner Field Operations and Diller, Scofidio & Renfro, it runs from Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District up to West 20th Street, and will eventually make its way up to 34th Street, spanning an incredible 23 blocks.

The tracks were once used for herding cattle to meat processing plants, but were overrun in the 70’s and 80’s by highway development. It has been the pillar of a crummy side of town for years, and only with some pesky, ardent supporters of its preservation, 155 million dollars (44 million of which was raised by donors), and a team of urban visionaries has it been restored to the coolest thing in town.

After climbing three stories of stairs to this surprise party of a public space, what you see is an astonishing achievement of nature restoring industrial decay. Aside from the sturdy, dark blue steel pillars that support this mysterious landmark, the park is completely hidden. This effect gives the park a sort of speakeasy feel, as if lying atop the dingy tracks were some sort of secret club.

Once in the park, you can see stretches of the city and the Hudson River rarely seen by New Yorkers. At dusk you can watch the sunset on the Hudson as boats go by. The trains have been replaced by lavish promenades interspersed with the sort of plants you might see in New York if it hadn’t been paved over hundreds of years ago. Prairie grass, berried bushes, and spruce trees abound in a bizarre and exciting way. The gardens all stand tall and animated, like pets energized to see their keepers after weeks at the kennel.

Photo: Makoto Fujimura

Looking down, you feel superior and transcendent to the pesky traffic below. It feels good to be justifiably condescending towards the loud metal boxes that don’t have nearly as good of a view and are bound by traffic lights. You can lose your way quite easily on The High Line, as the amount of traffic signal-free strolling you can do is alien to your typical city dweller.

The walkways are made of a concrete that doesn’t feel like concrete, but rather a composite material of finely smoothed particles. This adds to the wonder of the space. When you’re outside in New York and your feet hit something that doesn’t feel like concrete, it’s a memorable experience.

Wild grass shoots up through slats in the walkways as if to blur the barriers between human innovation and natural beauty. Chairs and loungers rise out of the ground and blend into wood structures, making any sitting or laying space feel connected to the nature that the designers have imposed and creates a flowing wave-like effect that adds to the tranquility of the space.

At 17th street there is a massive tiered, amphitheater-like structure that ends with a giant glass window, making the expansive 10th Avenue an unlikely and fascinating stage for pedestrians to ogle. The rows of wooden benches are a series of ramps that make the sitting area a veritable playground suspended above a busy street.

The materials throughout are thoughtful and polished. The lighting is subdued, highlighting only the plants and sleek structures. And the views of the surrounding neighborhoods are new. You’re not as high up as a skyscraper’s observation deck, but you are close enough to get a true vibe of the area.

And the area is transforming. Once a dilapidated ruin of warehouses, meatpacking plants, and streets riddled with crime, this neighborhood is now a burgeoning zone for new commerce and living. Architects across the globe have been chomping at the bit to get a building in the newfound “High Line District,” and a few great ones have succeeded. The posh new buildings include an apartment building that has an entrance onto the actual park and a hip new hotel that straddles the south end of the tracks.

In the short time since its opening, The High Line has achieved a bevy of excited residents, thrilled to see the neighborhood transform. Patty Heffley, a cabaret performer, has lived to see the High Line through many stages. When the tracks were unused and weeds began to grow, Heffley wanted to plant flowers. She would try and throw water balloons with seeds in them, but her efforts were fruitless. Now Heffley has started performing for park-goers from her fourth-story fire escape in a show called High Line Park’s Renegade Cabaret.

The High Line has become wildly popular amidst artists as well. There are already a countless number of fashion and commercial photographers and film crews shooting and snapping amidst the sea of strolling park-goers.

Though the neighborhood is slowly being restored and gaining a more stylish status, the park stays true to the grittiness of its past. Throughout the promenade are signs of what once was, as train tracks jut through gardens and graffiti lines some surrounding buildings. You never get the idea that you have left a city and entered a bucolic respite (a very wise choice on the designers’ behalf), but you feel as if the city’s attractive elements have been amplified with ruggedly wild gardening and spatial intelligence.

New York City is renowned for always looking forward without being tethered to the past. This philosophy has made for some dangerous progress and violent renovations, but in the end has always been a net-positive ideology for the largest city in America. But with this audacious public space, the city seems to have achieved both a deep regard for its history and a bright glimpse of hope for its future.

Photo: Makoto Fujimura

The designers of The High Line built the space with the idea of there being “romance in the ruins” and they achieved just that. It is prophetic in nature, steering the town’s aesthetic towards one of profound respect for its story and groundbreaking ideas for its future.

Equally important is that The High Line serves as a role model: it’s the biggest recycling project in New York City’s history.

Is it too much to say that the park is New York’s brightest example of how to restore a city? Head up the stairs on Gansevoort and Washington Streets and decide for yourself – before it’s overrun by tourists.