The High Line, one of New York City’s most unlikely tourist attractions, has been an overnight sensation that was almost 30 years in the making.
Its life began in the 1930s, when a railroad spur serving Manhattan’s West Side industrial district was elevated 30 feet above the street to make it less dangerous to pedestrians and autos. The rail line had been crucial to the city since before the Civil War, but it caused so many collisions and near-accidents between trains and people that a set of monitors on horseback, who became known as West Side cowboys, had to be employed to trot ahead of the engines waving red flags.
In Your Bucket Because…
- It’s Manhattan’s latest icon
- Great views of sunsets and cityscapes
- An example of creative urban park design
The last freight was delivered in 1980, by which time tractor trailer trucks had replaced freight trains as the main means of delivering food to the borough. Until the 2000s, weeds grew through the deserted tracks that remained above the streets stretching north from Far West Greenwich Village to an area right near the Lincoln Tunnel, at 30th Street. The southernmost neighborhood below contained slaughterhouses, meat packers, and dark corners and bars where men met and had sex with other men.
Why not an Elevated Park?
Enter a group of savvy locals, who thought that the plans to tear down the tracks were wrong-headed. Instead, how about converting the whole pathway into a public park? they suggested. The plan took root; by 2003, the city was holding a competition for ideas on how to re-purpose the tracks, by now referred to as the High Line.
The winning design was a public walkway decorated with plantings, benches and water fountains. Construction began in 2006; it began opening in sections in 2009, and is almost complete.
Gansvoort Street in the city’s Meatpacking District is where the High Line’s new incarnation as a park begins. The neighborhood underneath and nearby galloped ahead of the park plans and is now a mecca of art galleries, restaurants, high-end shops residential buildings and hotels.
I see the High Line as a miracle of public will, created despite short-sighted ideas and comments from a less enlightened period. (One Giuliani Administration official fulminated that the abandoned High Line had “no right to be there” anymore and damned it as “the Vietnam of old railroad trestles.”)
High Line Photo Ops and Public Art
Except perhaps in the dead of winter, the High Line is almost too crowded. It has blossomed in every way imaginable. There’s artwork (often temporary) along its 1 1/2 mile corridor by such recognized names as El Anatsui, the Ghanaian sculptor, and million dollar exhibits in interiors below. The Standard Hotel straddles the High Line, making some of its windows a place for guests to stage their own performance art postures, sometimes in the nude. There are views of the spontaneous flaming art show created by sunset over New Jersey, directly west across the Hudson.
Try visiting early in the morning or even after the sun goes down to allow yourself the chance to meander and observe High Line touches big and small. Notice how the water fountains route excess water not down any pipes but into the shrubbery as irrigation. Notice the cutout portions along the narrowest parts of the High Line, where you can step out of the stream of traffic and take a photo.
Is anyone in the Standard’s windows? Take a look. Don’t miss views of the IAC building, a Frank Gehry masterpiece that houses Barry Diller’s Interactive Corporation on 18th Street and Eleventh Avenue. Be sure to keep an eye out for the carefully curated remainders of railroad track. Enjoy the sun deck at 14th Street, where bikinied bodies stretch on wooden chaises lounges.
I suppose you can appreciate the High Line without knowing the history, but for those of us who have watched it morph into a refined tourist trap every bit as primo New York as Times Square, the mind’s eye wanders backward as well as forward. It may not be an oasis because of its popularity, but it is definitely a place of peace.
- Enter at Gansvoort Street via steps to take in entire High Line.
- Take subway line A or C to 14th Street.
- Best times of day are early in the morning or after dusk.
- Get souvenirs online at the High Line Shop.