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How Does Your Urban Garden Grow?

Published: April 16, 2006

Three quarters of a century ago, the High Line was high tech.

The one-and-a-half-mile viaduct that runs from 34th Street to Gansevoort Street on the West Side of Manhattan transformed life on 10th Avenue by getting commercial trains out of the way of horses and pedestrians. But by the 1950's trucks were starting to transport more freight than trains, and in 1980 the High Line shut down for good.

Twenty years later, it had devolved into wildness, a flower-strewn stretch of prairie perched above the newly fashionable streets of the meatpacking district, West Chelsea and Clinton. It was just that wildness that made a certain segment of New York fall madly in love with it, particularly when they learned that Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and various Chelsea landlords wanted it razed.

And so the group Friends of the High Line was born, with the aim of preserving that patch of green. "All of a sudden it's like 'Alice in Wonderland,' through the keyhole and you're in a magical place," one supporter explained in a documentary on the group's Web site. "There's New York City all around you and there you are — it's the wheat fields of Kansas, it's an alpine meadow, it's magic."

Edward Norton, the actor, put it this way: "The whole idea that something's been left alone long enough for nature to actually, like, take a foothold in it, and create this green space while no one was paying attention is fantastic to me. I love it."

The group won over artists, big-money donors, movie stars and eventually even politicians to its dreamily impractical goal.

Last Monday the Friends and their friends — including Diane von Furstenberg, Barry Diller, Kevin Bacon, Mr. Norton, Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles E. Schumer, and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg — gathered to break ground on a park that will one day span the High Line.

This victory, like the collapse of the West Side Stadium project, would seem to fly in the face of modern-day Manhattan logic. In defiance of all the developers who might have wanted to build there, the dream of the prairie prevailed.

But only the dream.

As the project picked up momentum, it also picked up a lot of money and some very fancy architects, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and the firm Field Operations. The park they envisioned will still include all kinds of untamed plant life, but in a sophisticated and painstakingly designed package, with swooping angles, transparent walkways and room for commerce below.

Thanks to some New Yorkers' love of low tech, the High Line will be high tech once again.

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