Recently Erin and I visited New York City for a bit of a vacation. With so much to see and do, it was hard to decide what we were going to pack into 10, oh so short, days. Visiting the High Line, was near the top of both our lists.
I first learned about the High Line watching a documentary on sustainability and urban design. I felt compelled to experience it myself. As it turns out, visiting this unique feature of New York was certainly one of the highlights of our trip.
What is the High Line?
In short, the High Line is an old abandoned elevated-rail line that runs from Gansevoort Street, three blocks below 14th Street in the Meatpacking District, through Chelsea, to the northern edge of the West Side Yard on 34th Street (just over 2km). The line has been reclaimed and turned into an active transportation right-of-way/park.
The History of the High Line
The High Line was originally constructed as part of the West Side Improvement Project. The project was developed by Robert Moses, infamous or legendary (depending on which school of urban design you subscribe to) planner for the City of New York. This new viaduct connected the shipping yards with factories and warehouses by going over the centre of blocks rather than avenues. The line was literally built through buildings or directly adjacent to them so that train cars could easily be loaded with goods for shipping.
As trucking began to displace rail in the 1950s, the line’s traffic reduced. The dwindling manufacturing sector in New York City continued to reduce the line’s traffic until in 1980 when the last train traveled the line caring three cars of frozen turkeys.
Following its abandonment, owners of the property under the High Line called for it’s demolition. Peter Obletz, a Chelsea resident, activist, and railroad enthusiast, fought the demolition efforts in court attempting to preserve this piece of New York’s past.
The line continued to sit unused into the 90s. Nature, doing its thing, began to reclaim the space, and local residents noticed the mixture of hardy grasses and woody plants that sprung up from the gravel between the tracks. Despite being structurally sound, the Giuliani administration sought the removal of the line. Area residents resisted this effort.
The Fight to Save the High Line
In 1999, neighbourhood residents Joshua David and Robert Hammond started the Friends of the High Line not-for-profit group to advocate for the line’s preservation and use as a trail and linear park similar to the Promenade Plantée in Paris. Public meetings were held and fundraising efforts got underway. Even CSX Transportation, the official owners of the line, got behind the effort.
In 2004, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other city council members got behind the effort and committed $50 million dollars to the project. Soon, $150 million was raised, and the conversion of rail to trail began.
Walking the High Line
Walking the High Line was an amazing experience. After spending days walking the streets of New York at street level, being on the High Line offered a very different perspective of this mega-city. The mixture of natural grasses, trees and wild flowers juxtaposed against the brick, steel, glass and cement jungle seemed almost natural, comforting. Despite the traffic noise from below, the High Line was alive with the sound of the conversations of passers-by, the footsteps of joggers, the laughter of children, the musical stylings of street performers and even the sound of bees.
The trail itself is art. The changing mixture of plants, pressed and sealed gravel walk ways, interesting rest areas and overlooks that provide one-of-a-kind street views, is an expression of Big Apple urban life re-imagined. There are a number of art installations along the way and even a rest stop where water is flowed across a section of sidewalk for people to take their shoes off and let the water rush over their feet on a hot day. Just like the streets below, a number of vendors along the trail offered beverages and interesting foods. My camera in hand, I wandered the line, stopping every few meters to capture another amazing view or interested feature.
The Power of Vision and Leadership
As it did many times during our trip to New York, my attention wandered to the organizational, financial and political complexities that laid at the foundation of this amazing element of public life. My time on council, as board member on countless organizations and now as a city manager has given me an appreciation for what it takes to make “big things” happen. My experience being limited to projects at the scale of a small city (microscopic in comparison to New York) I stood in awe of the work that went into making the High Line a reality.
Upon my return home, I did a bit of searching online to learn more about the organized effort that created the High Line. David and Hammond’s Friends of the High Line non-profit organization continue to play an instrumental role in overseeing the operation of the trail and driving its continuing development and evolution. Even a brief review of the Friends of the High Line website leaves you with an appreciation of the skilled community development and mobilization that has been key to the organization’s success. Many projects and initiatives start on the basis of the founder’s passion and vision – but “big things” need more. They need the organization and leadership required to cultivate an army of people with the same passion and vision as the founders.
My nerdist tendencies, as they relate to understanding the “how” of public organizations, where in full force during our trip. I have a stack of brochures and membership applications for the various museums, parks and galleries we visited, not to mention photos of the various monuments erected to recognize the people behind these great places. Below are some photos from the monument from the High Line:
Thank you to everyone listed here, and for the hundreds of others who are not, but still contributed in some way, to the creation of the High Line; local leaders, every one of you.
Visit the High Line in New York
If you’re placemaking geek, a fanatic about naturalized urban spaces, or just a connaisseur of cool sights to see, then the High Line has to be on your list of things to do in New York City. It’s free and offers a generous portion of the best “urban space” that New York has to offer. Until you get there, I offer the following photos to tempt you: