highlighted mobile

“A Magic-Carpet View of the City”

By Philip Connors
Thursday, August 22, 2002 – New York

Having moved here from Montana nearly four years ago, I found it difficult to suppress the urge to climb, to explore, to seek out remnants of wilderness. I was eager to get up – not by an elevator but by my own two feet. A few climbing adventures in industrial Queens provided gorgeous city views, but factory rooftops were no match for timbered peaks.

Then I noticed the High Line.

A strip of elevated railroad on Manhattan's West Side, it runs from 34th Street and 12th Avenue to Gansevoort Street in the meatpacking district. It is a treasure now mostly because it's the structure that time forgot.

It beckoned because it was . . . green. From 23rd Street and 10th Avenue, I looked up and saw a strip of meadow in the sky. I had to get there. But how? Now owned by CSX, a Virginia-based rail and shipping company, the track was built in the 1930s as a freight line. It carried its last shipment, three cars of frozen turkeys, in 1980. Passenger trains never used it. Thus, no stairs or other means of pedestrian access. I followed its path several blocks north until I spied a route up. This required climbing a fence, heaping old automobile tires into a pile, scaling the pile and heaving myself onto a factory rooftop, then shimmying up steel support beams onto the tracks. (Only later – much later – did I find an easier way.)

Behold! The city opened like a flower, the towers of Midtown cupping the Empire State Building like petals around a gleaming silver stamen. Even more remarkable than the urban panorama was the view at my feet. A swath of Manhattan had gone to seed, reverting to a kind of native prairie: knee-high grasses, white and yellow wildflowers, a miracle born of neglect. I fell for it instantly and have gone back again and again.

At 30th Street the tracks run east-west for two long blocks, then curve south again. Here a corrugated tin barricade blocks the way, but someone has torn a gash in it just big enough to allow a man to slip through. Recently, an artist painted a mural on the back side. It depicts the view to the north and west, including the river and the low-slung black box of the Javits Center. In the sky are the words "save the tracks," as if written by an airplane skywriter. On the right-hand side of the curve, going south, a sculpture collection sits on a rooftop: funky-looking abstractions fashioned of multicolored hoops and painted wire mesh, like the offspring of a Slinky and a tennis racket.

Soon you come to another tin barrier. This one you must crawl beneath on your belly. When you emerge on the other side, you see something sublime: a small garden with a tiny maple tree, a miniature pine and a patch of daisies and sunflowers. The gardener tends this lovely plot by stepping from a third-floor apartment window on a plank laid across to the tracks. For a few seasons, the little pine was wreathed by a string of Christmas lights.

Forgive me if I make the High Line sound like an elevated Eden. In fact, part of its charm arises from juxtapositions of what might be considered the sacred and the profane.

In a shady spot where the tracks are bracketed by two old warehouse buildings, a miniature forest has risen; yet just beyond it the tracks are littered with rusty buckets, old spray-paint cans (graffiti detritus) and a lonesome-looking pair of turquoise underpants. In this way the tracks are like the streets below – elegant here, grubby there – and they turn Henry Adams's dictum on its head. "Chaos," he observed, "was the law of nature; Order was the dream of man." On the High Line nature has restored order to a chaotic sliver of Manhattan's West Side, and the only evidence of chaos appears in the flotsam left behind by humans.

In a passing scene is his novel "Great Jones Street," Don Delillo imagined a distant future when archaeologists would scale the mounds of rubble in our abandoned cities and attribute our culture's demise, in part, to the fact that we stored so much of our beauty high in the air, out of eyesight. I thought of Delillo as I looked down onto the roof of a grimy little auto-repair shop and saw two immaculately carved wooden owls perched on a ledge. From the street I would never have noticed them.

The High Line, though, is increasingly drawing notice. A group called Friends of the High Line ( has been working to transform the structure into a seven-acre strip of levitating parkland, by making it part of the federal government's vastly successful Rails-to-Trails program. West Side property owners dream, instead, of dismantling it and building condos and office buildings. A very talented photographer, Joel Sternfeld, has taken pictures of the tracks in all seasons and published them in a marvelous book, "Walking the High Line," published by Steidl. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has even ordered a study on the High Line's future, and his administration's report is due this month.

It's hard to root for the real-estate developers in this case. A park along the High Line would be a stunning amenity in a city as dense as New York. Walking the tracks, it's possible to feel as if you're on a slow-motion magic carpet ride. Admittedly, a selfish and proprietary part of me wishes the tracks would simply be left to another 20 years of benign neglect. But then I remember the commanding city views we New Yorkers so recently lost. And I think that in its relative humility, its unprepossessing message that beauty and nature endure in the unlikeliest of circumstances, a park on the High Line could be a consoling gift we give to ourselves and the future of the city. [ ]

Friends of the High Line (FHL) has just moved to Hudson Guild, just steps from the High Line. Please note FHL’s new contact info:

Friends of the High Line
Hudson Guild
441 West 26th Street, Room 225
New York, NY 10001
(212) 631-9188
(212) 631-9185 fax

As we move into our first dedicated office, we would like to acknowledge the crucial support we’ve received from the the Greenacre Foundation, the J.M. Kaplan Fund, the Merck Family Fund, the New York City Council, the Donald A. Pels Charitable Trust, and hundreds of generous private donors.

FHL has many people to thank for their help in creating the new space:

The room we occupy is leased at an affordable rate by Hudson Guild, a vital provider of social services to the Chelsea community for over 100 years, located at Elliott- Chelsea Houses, a New York City Housing Authority residential complex. Special thanks to Janice McGuire, Susan Gershen-Tyler, Vivian Lekhter, and Yvonne Rivera.

FHL’s office interior was designed by Yen Ha and Ostap Rudakevych of Front Studio, who generously donated their services and created a simple yet visually striking design that maximized the utility and look of a small space. For information about this exciting, young firm, go to:

Front Studio’s designs were constructed by Chris & Ted, a fast-working young team of fabricators that does terrific work. (718) 383-1130.

Robert Greenhood, of Greenhood & Company, set up FHL’s computer and office systems on a pro-bono basis. Greenhood also manages the production and distribution of FHL’s e-mail newsletter. Companies interested in the services Greenhood offers can go to:

Thanks go to Hamilton Rabinovitz & Alschuler (HR&A), who generously donated FHL’s desk chairs.

FHL’s airconditioner was generously sponsored by Josh Feuerstein and Jessica Bride and has been much appreciated during these hot August weeks.

Finally, we must thank everyone at Neighborhood Preservation Center (NPC), our previous home. NPC, at 232 East 11th Street, supports numerous organizations concerned with the city’s social and built environment. One way it does this is by offering temporary office space to fledgling non-profits. FHL has occupied an “incubator” office space at NPC for about a year, and we could not done all we’ve done in the last year without NPC's support. Special thanks to Felicia Mayro, NPC’s director. For more info, go to:

The study that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced last April, to review the feasibility of converting the High Line to an elevated pedestrian greenway, is nearing completion. The office of the Deputy Mayor for Economic Development and Rebuilding has overseen the study in collaboration with the Department of City Planning. The City retained Turner Construction to evaluate the High Line’s structural integrity. FHL’s role was to identify the costs of rehabilitating the structure and building an elevated greenway with public access points, and to compare those costs with the public benefits that a park atop the High Line could reasonably be expected to create.

After the results of the study are presented to Deputy Mayor Doctoroff, presentations will be made to other City and State officials and to the public.

FHL’s component of the study is being managed by Hamilton Rabinovitz & Alschuler (HR&A), with participation from Gary Edward Handel & Associates, Beyer Blinder Belle, Hanscomb International Construction Consultants, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, Friedman & Gotbaum, and a major engineering/infrastructure consultant.

The feasibility study has been made possible by support from the Greenacre Foundation, the J.M. Kaplan Fund, and the New York City Council.

FHL seeks a highly organized, self-motivated, full-time office manager/project coordinator to hire immediately. The position will be responsible for all daily operations at FHL’s Hudson Guild office; will maintain FHL’s database; will maintain FHL’s accounts; and will coordinate community outreach and volunteer activities. Strong computer skills and a minimum of one year post-academic work experience are required. Email resumés to; or fax them to 212-631-9185; or mail them to FHL, address below. No phone calls, please. FHL is an equal opportunity employer.

FHL has been working at the federal level to ensure that the High Line is preserved for reuse as an elevated greenway.

In August, FHL petitioned the Surface Transportation Board (STB) in Washington, DC, asserting that a 1992 ruling that opened the door to demolition proposals for the High Line is “outdated and invalid” and must be reconsidered. FHL’s legal team at Covington & Burling, in Washington, DC, wrote an extremely strong and well-argued filing. If it succeeds in getting the 1992 ICC decision reopened, we will have scored a major win in our efforts to preserve the High Line for pedestrian reuse. [for more information, click here]

The urgency of our petition was underscored by a filing, several days earlier, by demolition proponents. They requested STB approval of their contested demolition proposal, even though that proposal is missing crucial signatures and still being challenged in State courts because of its attempt to skirt required public review procedures.

In today’s New York Times (8/29/02), David W. Dunlap writes about FHL’s use of images and graphic design to convey the High Line’s beauty and the need for its preservation to the widest possible audience. The images, which include a photograph by Joel Sternfeld and an illustration created by Greenberg Kingsley/NYC for our July benefit, are only in the printed version of the New York Times, but you can read the text on-line.

Go to:

As is so often the case, the work that Dunlap writes about has all been donated to Friends of the High Line by individuals and firms of great talent who recognize the vital importance of this project. Special thanks to photographer Joel Sternfeld, Karen Greenberg and Mark Kingsley, of Greenberg Kingsley/NYC; and Paula Scher, of Pentagram, for creating and donating the work discussed in today’s article.

FHL is very excited about developing plans for its upcoming international design competition. Architects, landscape architects, artists, designers, and community members will be invited to create visionary reuse plans for the High Line, taking advantage of the growing body of knowledge FHL has assembled about the structure. FHL has hired Reed Kroloff, formerly the editor-in-chief of Architecture magazine, as the competition advisor. The competition will begin this winter, with submissions due late winter/early spring, and an exhibition of entries and winners scheduled for May 2003.

Earlier this year, FHL received a $30,000 grant from the National Endowment of the Arts for the design competition, but we still require matching funds as well as a major sponsor for the exhibition, which will be a high-profile event held in a prominent Manhattan location. If you can help secure a major sponsor, please get in touch with Robert Hammond at

FHL has been actively defending the public’s right to determine what happens to the High Line.

In July, demolition proponents appealed FHL’s court victory of March 2002, in which Honorable Justice Diane A. Lebedeff of the Supreme Court of the State of New York found that controversial plans to demolish the High Line were “undertaken in violation of ‘lawful procedure’ and [were] and ‘error of law.’”

Responding to the appeal in early August, FHL, in partnership with the New York City Council, the Manhattan Borough President, and six Chelsea residents and businessowners, filed a powerful opposition brief asserting that Justice Lebedeff’s ruling was reasonable and appropriate when it found that demolition plans were required to go through ULURP, a City-Charter public review process. The brief was written by counsel at Emery Cuti Brinckerhoff & Abady, the firm that secured our victory in March. Court arguments are scheduled for October. A decision is expected sometime this winter. We are optimistic that the March court win will withstand appeal and that FHL can stop attempts by demolition proponents to skirt sensible, mandatory public review.

In late July, Channel 13 WNET in New York featured spectacular new footage of the High Line’s upper deck, as well as rarely seen views of the High Line from neighboring rooftops, on the program, “New York Voices.” The segment was called “A World Above.” It featured interviews with photographer Joel Sternfeld and FHL co-founder Joshua David and was produced by Suzanne Glickstein. It will be re-broadcast on Channel 13 WNET in New York on September 20 at 10:30 pm; September 25 at 1:30 am; and October 11 at 10:30 pm. It can also be viewed on streaming video. Go to:

On Thursday, August 22, the Wall Street Journal published a very supportive article by Philip Connors about the High Line and its reuse potential. To see the full text, go to: “Text: Wall Street Journal Article