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The High Line Lives Again!

by Stephen Tortora-Lee on June 15, 2009

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Article by Stephen Tortora-Lee

After more than 20 years of being out of commission the High Line is “back on track” in New York’s collective consciousness. The High Line has been transformed from an abandoned elevated freight railroad track into a beautiful aerial park with plenty of room for New Yorkers to relax and enjoy native greenery, rolling benches, an outdoor auditorium, outdoor art installations and an interactive water cooled sidewalk (All photos courtesy of Inhabitat’s story on the High Line’s opening). One of the most significant aspects of this new development is that community activism helped create and shape this unique re-use of abandoned industrial infrastructure; helping to give easy access to this sprawling, comforting greenway in New York.

While visiting the High Line in its inaugural week, I got the feeling that it was one of those moments when where you are and what you are doing is truly part of something historical. Being in a park threading through the infrastructure of the city, not set apart from everything but actually created to synthetically bring nature back to us by melding onto where we live, made me imagine a new future where all of our buildings can have life embedded into them through smart structures which help adjust our urban environment to something that is wholesome and pleasant. It was like living through 1989 when all the change happening in the world, sparked by the fall of the Berlin Wall, was another type of community based urban renewal project.

But besides the beauty and the delight of seeing so many people there in the first week enjoying this new way of living, we have to look at the history to truly appreciate where new places like this can come from and the processes that are necessary to inspire something like this to happen.


Here is an excellent historical account of the High Line in Fall 2001 by a Columbia University student Li Ning which was done for a school project about the High Line and the neighborhoo surrounding it.

The time line of the High Line from The Friends of the High Line was invaluable when writing about the history below.

A train makes its way down the original High Line track

A train makes its way down the original High Line track

The construction of the High Line started in the 1930′s as a solution for excessive railway accidents that were happening along the ground-level crossings of the trains in the Meatpacking District, and the Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen neighborhoods of Manhattan which gave the area by the tracks the nickname “Death Alley“. The project cost $2 billion in today’s currency and eliminated 105 street level crossings. Train traffic began in 1934 using innovative ideas of going in the middle of blocks instead of along the avenue and connecting directly to factories and warehouses in the neighbourhood which completely eliminating street level traffic. This was truly state of the art urban design of the time, but interstate trucking begins reducing train traffic as early as the 1950s and in the 1960s the southern end of the High Line was demolished. In 1980 the final train went down the High Line pulling three cars of turkeys.

By the mid 1980s efforts were underway by community property owners to demolish the entire structure in an effort to remove a community blemish and raise property values. Peter Obletz, a Chelsea community resident, activist, and railroad enthusiast challenged demolition efforts and tried to resume rail service to the area. Not too much happened until community residents formed the nonprofit group Friends of the High Line in 1999 to advocate the High Line’s historical preservation and re-use as a public open space. By 2002 their efforts paid off and the City of New York supported them with a resolution advocating for the High Line’s re-use.

In 2003, an open ideas competition, Designing the High Line, received 720 entries from 36 countries with hundreds of entries being displayed in Grand Central. In 2004 a Design team was selected, and in 2005 New York City, New York State, the Federal Surface Transportation Board, and the CSX Transportation Inc (the railroad company) concluded negotiations to transfer the property to the City of New York and sign a Trail Use agreement allowing construction on the park renovation to begin. The renovation began in 2006 and was concluded now in June 2009. Without active support by the local neighborhood community and the Friends of the High Line this project never would have gotten off the ground.

What’s Next / What’s Connected

Green Skyline over The Highline

In keeping with the spirit of this column I’ve added a few interesting links about the High Line and related subjects.

* There are some events coming up at the High Line including an opening fundraising gala at 8 PM this Monday June 15th run by Friends of the High Line.

* Check out this information about a rooftop farm in Greenpoint, Brooklyn that is along the same lines as the High Line but on a practical food producing side as opposed to a practical aesthetic side for the High Line.

* Ecorazzi highlighted some famous people who were around for the first day.

* The people at talked about how 70% of the operating costs of the Friends of High Line will come from running events there.

* Here is another beautiful blog with great pictures and more commentary on how the High Line jumped hurdles in the last few years.

* Publicartonline has a good fact sheet discussing some of the environmental issues dealt with by the High Line Park as it has been built and some links to other similar renewing projects and other interesting documents about the High Line.

* The New York City Parks announcement of the park opening gives a perspective of the city government’s view on how the project is important and you can check it out here.

One of the key things to take home from this is to remain committed to trying out more new thing like this in the city … and continuing the momentum that has stated this week.

Also look here if you want to see some good tips on building your own green roofing project.

Please feel very welcome to add your own comments and related links below in the comments section below to make this post truly collaborative.

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