From Eyesore to Landmark: A History of the High Line
By Korvin Vicente and Flatiron Hot! News Editorial Staff
Last week the NYC Seminar and Conference Center interns took a break from their comprehensive summer program to explore a gem in the Chelsea landscape – the famed High Line Park. If by chance you are not familiar with it yet (and you should be), the High Line is an elevated freight rail line transformed into a public park on Manhattan’s West Side.
The visit began when High Line volunteer tour guide Connie Millner promptly greeted us. We were off on an expedition filled with historical anecdotes, lessons in architectural design, and even a course in contemporary art.
The tour commenced on the first section of the High Line, at West 14th Street. Connie wasted no time in schooling us on the rich history of the High Line Park.
The tracks, considered by many in the neighborhood to be an eyesore, were slated for demolition in the 1990s. However, the High Line found two friends in Joshua David and Robert Hammond, residents of the neighborhood who advocated repurposing of the railway as a public space. Since that time, the park has become one of the most innovative and inviting public spaces in New York City.
The roots of the High Line extend as far back as 1847, when the railroad was only a street level freight line. Before the time of traffic lights and street signs, thousand-ton freight trains would chug along Manhattan’s west side delivering raw goods to the meatpacking district, all while competing with automobile and pedestrian traffic for the right of way along 10th Avenue. The story goes that for safety, men on horses – the West Side Cowboys – were hired to warn pedestrians that the freight trains were coming. Yet collisions between trains and pedestrians were inevitable, so much so that the congested thoroughfare was notoriously dubbed “Death Avenue”.
As the tour continued north, we came upon other interesting tidbits of history. Case in point: Pier 54, where the 733 survivors of the ill-fated Titanic voyage disembarked after being rescued from the sunken ship, and the Nabisco building – now the Chelsea Market, where the Oreo was invented.
As rich with history as it is, the High Line neighborhood has come a long way from its meatpacking days. Currently, Chelsea is home to the highest concentration of artists in all of New York, and the High Line has not missed a step. The park has been home to the works of many artists throughout the years, and one in particular stood out on our visit – Spencer Finch’s The River That Flows Both Ways. Inspired by the Hudson River, Finch’s work documents a 700-minute (11 hours, 40 minutes) single-day journey on the river. From a tugboat drifting on Manhattan’s west side, Finch meticulously photographed the river’s surface. The installation consists of 700 panes of glass – one for every photograph taken.
The High Line is also an architectural masterpiece. One of its most impressive features is a sun deck given to the High Line by Diane Von Furstenberg – the Belgian-born fashion designer best known for her iconic wrap dress. The open-air walkway boasts hundreds of visitors on any given day. You can spot them by their relaxed demeanor, either stopping to take in the sun on the iconic chaise lounge seating or making a big splash on the High Line’s popular water feature.
The park is eco-friendly as well. According to Friends of the High Line, the park is a mile-and-a-half-long recycling project. The High Line’s pathway system is made of open-jointed concrete planks that redirect captured rainwater to nearby plant beds.
There are over 100,000 plants on the High Line, and roughly 300 different species in all. As such, the High Line employs seven full time gardeners.
Additionally, all materials brought in for the High Line landscape are environmentally friendly. For example, certain sections of the High Line are made entirely of ipe – imported Brazilian hardwood meant to last 100 years, and the same wood used to rebuild the Jersey Shore after Hurricane Sandy.
In a way, the High Line is one big easel. It creatively embodies the spirit of New York City, paying homage to the past while at the same time setting the standard for the future.
Since its inception, the High Line has had to adapt over time in order to survive. It transitioned from a thriving freight line, to a symbol of decay, only to emerge a model for urban planning and growth. The outright creativity and thoughtfulness with which it was designed, along with the historical content that surrounds the High Line are unmatched, and make the High Line a true NYC landmark.
Work has begun to turn the third and final section of the High Line into a public open space. Construction is currently underway on the first phase of the project. When completed, the High Line will officially extend 1.45 miles long, from Gansevoort Street to West 34th Street – connecting the Meatpacking District and West Chelsea with the Javits Center and the future Hudson Yards neighborhood.
The High Line at the Rail Yards, the final section of the elevated railway, is scheduled to open to the public in 2014.
For any Flatiron District or Chelsea Area groups or businesses that would like to schedule a tour on their own and share in the fun, simply go to this link at “Friends of the High Line” for all the info needed to book your own tours!