By Steven Vincent
NEW YORK. Every visitor to Chelsea has seen it, although its rusting brown mass is easy to overlook, the 70-year-old elevated train passageway that runs from 33rd Street, along the Hudson River, through Chelsea to Manhattan’s Meat Packing District.
Called the High Line, this 1.45-mile-long viaduct, unused for 20 years and overgrown with weeds and wildflowers, would make a nice pedestrian park, say a group of local residents, architects and business owners. Calling themselves the Friends of the High Line (FHL), this group, headed by writer Joshua David and artist Robert Hammond, has for the last two and half year lobbied city government to transform the nearly 300,000-square foot High Line into a public space, modelled after the Promenade Plantée in Paris.
Prominent among the FHL’s supporters have been Chelsea’s art dealers. “I’m for anything that beautifies the city and neighbourhood,” says dealer Mary Boone. In July, Boone donated her Chelsea gallery for an auction to benefit the FHL.The sale featured works by artists such as Christo, Alexis Rockman and Tom Sachs, as well as the photographs of Joel Sternfeld, whose images of the flower-strewn passageway running through the canyons of New York give an idea of the High Line’s strange beauty.
But time is running out for the FHL. Landlords, who own property beneath the elevated tracks, and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who maintains that the High Line is a dangerous eyesore, are pushing forward a 1992 court order to demolish the passageway, hoping to reach an agreement before the New York mayoral election this month. (The candidates vying for the mayor’s job have all endorsed the High Line project.)
“The demolition would take over 18 months and result in increased traffic congestion,” the FHL recently informed its supporters. “This is not what the city needs right now.”
That may not be true. The climate for developing major public works in the city has changed radically since the World Trade Center attack, which plunged New York into its worse financial crisis in a generation. With costs estimated at $40 million to convert the High Line into a public space, the city and State governments will almost certainly view such expenditures with a wary eye.
Moreover, the company that owns the rail lines, CSX Transportation, pays around $400,000 in property tax a year on the structure and reportedly would like to relieve itself of the responsibility.
Nevertheless, High Line supporters are not abandoning their plans. Recently, New York’s non-profit Design Trust for Public Space awarded fellowships to architects Casey Jones and Keller Easterling to study the project’s feasibility. Their findings will be released this autumn and will form part of an exhibition, “Reclaiming the High Line”, planned to open at the Municipal Arts Society in January, 2002.
In addition, Easterling will present a companion study on a website this month.
Finally, the FHL have announced a design competition for the High Line development, scheduled to take place next year.