Feeding a Growing City: Part 2

West 16th Street, 1950s. Photo by Ed Doyle Taken in the 1950s, this photograph shows a passenger car at West 16th Street. Around the same time this image was captured, construction was underway on the interstate highway system, which would lead to further decline in freight traffic to and from New York City. Photo by Ed Doyle

This special blog post, the second in a two-part series (see part one), was written by Sonya Kharas of the NYU Food Studies Program and Nutshell Projects.

Feeding the Future

A slow, inefficient, and costly transportation system was incongruous with New York City in the 1920s. After all, this was the city that completed two of the world’s tallest skyscrapers — the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings — within the same year, and the city about which F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “Everything is possible. I am in the land of ambition, and success.”

And so, in 1929, the City of New York and the New York Central Railroad Company embarked on an ambitious project that would elevate the grade-level tracks along Manhattan’s West Side and, more importantly, modernize the handling of the city’s daily supplies of foodstuffs.

The architects of the High Line envisioned a futuristic system — a new city within a city — in which freight trains would run directly through enormous new buildings and warehouses equipped with private loading docks known as sidings, the likes of which can still be seen in today’s Chelsea Market Passage, on the High Line between West 15th and 16th Streets. The combination of elevated tracks and private sidings allowed trains to literally enter the second floor of cold storage facilities, processing plants, and wholesale groceries, bypassing the busy streets and marketplaces entirely. This was the so-called Life Line of New York: a new, modern, and streamlined way of feeding the city.

A Purpose Remains

Sadly, the full vision of this system never fully materialized. Soon after the High Line opened in 1934, trucks began to replace rail as the dominant mode of food transportation. Construction in the 1950s of the interstate highway system furthered trucks’ advantage over trains and effectively rendered the High Line useless. In 1980, the last train ran on the elevated tracks, pulling three carloads of frozen turkeys.

Yet the High Line’s original mission — to feed the people of New York City — is still fulfilled in many ways by the park’s programming. Where freight trains once delivered baking supplies to the Nabisco Complex (today’s Chelsea Market), the High Line’s food vendors now serve coffee, popsicles, and other treats. Where farmers once peddled fruits and vegetables from their horse-drawn wagons, park visitors will be soon be able to enjoy a meal at the High Line’s new full-service restaurant.

Although the High Line never revolutionized food transportation as its architects had originally intended, food on the High Line lives on — delicious, innovative, and inspiring.

Sonya Kharas lives in New York City and works for Nutshell Projects, a small farm and food consultancy. She leads regular tours on the High Line focusing on the history of the railroads as it relates to food. Make sure to check out her next tour on Wednesday May 8, 2013.

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