Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The High Line – time out at New York City

The High Line at the west side of New York City is an unusual linear park.  At this time, it is a free public park at one mile long with narrow walkway south of 30th street between 10th and 11th Ave.  Unlike typical linear parks, the High Line is elevated at 30 feet high, cutting through and standing in between two large avenues of the city. 

New York city did not actually spend big bucks to build an elevated city park from scratch.  The structure used to be a section of the West Side Freight Line  built in mid 19th century by the Hudson River Railroad, connecting southern Manhattan through midtown all the way north to Albany, the capital of New York State 150 miles away.   In 1934, the section south of Penn Station at 34th street was relocated west from street level along 10th Ave to a 30 feet high structure, thus the name “High Line”, to avoid the frequent traffic accidents and to make loading and unloading of goods easier.  Who would have thought in only few decades, the hyper growth of the trucking and highway systems supplanted the rail transportations.  While the north section of the West Side Line beyond Penn Station is still used by Amtrak, the elevated High Line was abandoned in 1980 and left with weeds and rust till recent years.

Climbing up staircases at west of the intersection of 10th Ave and 30th street and turning right, you can see the last section of the High Line Park under construction that is scheduled to open in 2013.  From here, the High Line turns west towards to the Hudson River and will take visitors through the West Side Rail Yards to 34th street. 

Turning left, one can start the journey south and stroll down the new section of the park which was opened a little over a year ago in summer of 2011.  As one walks south, ornamental grasses greet the visitors along with few surviving blooms of cone flowers.  Less than few hundred feet, a gigantic mural of a man, Brandon Many Ribs of a North Dakota Indian tribe, overlooks the High Line with eyes closed.  He appears to be screaming silently, possibly due to intrusions by the visitors.  This is a recent work by the award winning French street artist JR from his participatory Inside Out Project.

Near 27th street, another mural “The High Line Zoo” by Jordan Betten and his team is at display on a roof top next to the High Line.  For some unknown reasons, the zoo animals are all gone from the roof when I compared my photo against that of the original display found on the net (see photos to the right).  

Two blocks further at the west 25th street, you will not miss the colorful multistory mural by Brazilian muralist Eudardo Kobra. The American iconic B& W photo Victory over Japan Day in Times Square by Alfred Eisenstaedt and other scenes of New York circa WWII were turned into bright carnival celebrations. 
As you walk further south, here comes the most dramatic illustration of the impact of the High Line on redevelopment.  HL23, an upside down 14 story luxurious condominium with a slim bottom fits snugly right into the High Line with no space to waste and no more weight o carry (see photo at the left).  Ceiling to floor glasses on the north and south side of the building provide plenty of lights and views for the residents at the expense of privacy.  The building was designed by Neil Denari and was completed a year ago with an explicit goal and challenge of maximizing floor spaces with a tiny base of 40x99 ft and zoning restrictions.  There is no question that this building will become one of the new icons for New York city, just like the IAC building designed by Frank Gehry in his signature twisted curvy exterior which can be seen from the High Line near west 18th street.

At the west 18th street, you can also view the huge High Line Billboard, currently showing Thomas Bayrle’s American Dream – a classic Chrysler car made of company’s logo.  Near Gansevoort Street, the southern end of the High Line Park, a cute 9-foot tall figure sculpture Old Singer with Blossoms by Alessandro Pessoli is hidden in trees and bushes (see photo to the right). For more about the current art exhibitions, see the web page of the High Line Public Art.  By the way, you do need to slow down and pay attention as you may end up missing some of the works like I did.

When High Line was built as an elevated railroad 80 years ago, it was deliberately made to travel in between 10th and 11th Ave.  As a result, a few high rises had to make ways allowing freight train to tunnel through the buildings. Some of these tunnels are now places for street performances and some exhibits.  It was such an enjoyment to hear a cellist play when I was visiting.  Other than taking a sip of water and wiping off his sweats on his face, he was totally immersed in the music and oblivious to the occasional deposit of changes into his cello case by visitors.  

Walking back north, I stopped by the Blue Bottle Coffee near the Upper Chelsea Market Passage at the 15th street.  I joined the line, waiting patiently for a cup of fresh “hand-made” drip coffee.   I was curious if the coffee would taste any better as I watched the barista painstakingly pouring rounds of hot water into each holder attentively.

The High Line of New York city is not the first elevated linear park.  The idea in fact came from The Promenade plantée of Paris which is a 2.9 miles long walkway completed in 1993.  The High Line has however inspired many other cities in U.S. and elsewhere such as Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Luis and Rotterdam  to pursue conversions of abandoned city railroads into green space with the hope that they will attract and spur further neighborhood redevelopment.

perhaps the most impressive part of the story of the High Line Park of New York is that the project started as a result of the activism of neighborhood residents and is a true grass-root movement.  There were competing ideas by businessmen and property owners in 80s and 90s to demolish the elevated structure in favor of traditional redevelopment.  In 1999, two neighborhood residents and activists Joshua David and Robert Hammond founded the Friends of the High Line and championed the efforts and mobilized the community as well as city administrators and politicians to save the High Line.  The result was nothing short of a miracle as (what some would consider) a pie in the sky was successfully turned into a “park in the sky”.  To this date, a major part of the park maintenance is supported by the Foundation and volunteers.  It has already attracted more than $2 billion dollars of new development to the area around it for residential units, office and commercial spaces.   While the notion of “build a cool park, they will come” may sound naïve, the success of High Line park has become as a shining example of how a nice green space can revitalize city neighborhoods.  For more details about the High Line including history, timeline, and photos, you can visit its official website at

Enjoy your walk and talk to you soon!

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