There are two ways a great city can maintain itself. There is the Paris way, in which the monumental architecture of long ago is locked in place while modern development is shunted far from the core, and there is the New York way, in which the core is constantly torn down and rebuilt.
Or, occasionally, simply repurposed. Today marks the opening of the second stage of New York’s High Line park, where the city’s past and present come together on an old viaduct on Manhattan’s far West Side.
Planned in the 1920s and built as the Great Depression reached its greatest depth, the High Line carried freight trains from the rail yards at 34th Street southward, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues, to Spring Street in lower Manhattan. This was an industrial area in those days, crammed with warehouses to receive the goods that longshoremen hauled out of ships tied up at Hudson River docks, and dotted with the meat packing plants that gave the district between Greenwich Village and 20th Street its name.
The new line was a model of 20th century efficiency. Sidings let trains pull directly into some of the larger buildings for loading and unloading. A mid-block location kept the elevated tracks from obstructing traffic and shadowing sidewalks along the avenues, problems that were evident with elevated passenger trains elsewhere in Manhattan. The new rail link replaced an old set of tracks that was installed down the middle of Tenth Avenue in the 1850s, creating crossings so dangerous that “cowboys” had to ride on horseback in front of the trains to warn other traffic to get out of the way.
The High Line’s heyday was brief. The interstate highway system allowed trucks to eat into railroads’ freight-hauling business in the decades after World War II. The advent of container ships, which required large open spaces near the docks, sent most of New York Harbor’s freight business to the New Jersey shore. With that change and the accompanying decline of trans-Atlantic passenger travel, many of the Hudson River docks simply rotted away. The warehouses emptied.
The southernmost stretch of the High Line was demolished in the 1960s. Trains continued to service the meatpacking district until 1980, when a final load of frozen turkeys made its way down the tracks. Then the viaduct sat, disused and virtually unmaintained, for years. A decade ago, there were proposals to tear it down.
But two neighborhood residents, Joshua David and Robert Hammond, had other ideas. They founded Friends of the High Line to advocate turning the elevated right-of-way into a public space.
A few things fell into place to make it possible. One was the advent in 1983 of federal “rail banking” legislation, which sought to preserve some of the nation’s rail corridors for future transportation use by allowing them to be turned into public trails temporarily but indefinitely. Rather than simply abandon a right-of-way, a railroad could convey its land ownership and easements to a government or private group that would establish a trail, but which would agree in advance to return the right-of-way to rail use if needed in the future. (Such a future is hard to imagine along the High Line, but I suppose anything is possible.)
Another was New York City’s renaissance in the 1980s and 1990s as a financial, service and tourist center. With plentiful jobs, declining crime, a revitalized arts scene and a wave of young adult Baby Boomers, everyone wanted to be in Manhattan. Downtrodden neighborhoods along the West Side became attractive places to live. The new residents were clamoring for parks and other amenities. A controversial West Side highway and park plan, the Westway, was blocked on environmental grounds, leaving those demands for recreational space unmet.
Finally, there was the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001. The collapse of the Twin Towers left a visual and emotional hole along the entire West Side. The city was determined to rebuild. While it took years to work out plans for redevelopment of the World Trade Center site, the High Line was a project that could be done relatively quickly. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his administration got behind it.
So Bloomberg was on hand the day the High Line renovation started in 2006. Three years later, the stretch from Gansevoort Street in the West Village northward to 20th Street was ready for public use, and it opened on June 9, 2009. Today brings the opening of the segment from 20th Street to 30th Street.
My wife and I strolled the southern section last weekend. It was packed with New Yorkers and visitors toting their cameras to capture unusual views of the city and its environs from 30 feet above the sidewalk. We could peer over low roofs onto the loading docks of the meat packing plants that still dot the neighborhood. We could look across the river at the New Jersey shore. We walked through openings in the renovated warehouses, now turned into fashionable lofts and offices, where the trains once rumbled.
The fate of the line’s northernmost link, from 30th Street to the rail yards, is still to be determined. CSX did not surrender that segment when it turned over the rest of the right-of-way to the city for use in the High Line park. Friends of the High Line, naturally, wants to preserve this stretch, which would offer an eastward view across Manhattan to the Empire State Building. The city wants to develop new structures above the rail yards, which might or might not accommodate the preservation of the old High Line.
Either way, the city has ended up with a beautiful public amenity and a neighborhood focal point. It is unusual but not unique. Other cities, including Chicago, have or are planning similar parks. One that already exists is the Promenade Plantee, in Paris — which shows us that no matter how a great city chooses to maintain itself, there are multiple routes to the same destination.