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How Everyone Jumped Aboard a Railroad to Nowhere

Published: May 8, 2005

When the Friends of the High Line first banded together six years ago, their idea - to turn a stretch of rusting rail into an oasis floating above the bustle of Chelsea - seemed quixotic at best. At worst, it seemed like a folly, proof that the artists and celebrities involved had lost touch with real life in Giuliani-era New York. Against staggering odds, however, their daring vision has become city policy. Here's a look at how fancy photography, graphic design and celebrity serendipity trumped railroads, landlords and a swamp of government agencies.

Courtesy the City of New York

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Arts & Leisure (May 8, 2005)

1992 The Interstate Commerce Commission rules in favor of Chelsea landowners seeking to demolish the High Line, the railway running above 10th and 11th Avenues. Railroads and city agencies debate costs and responsibility.

1999 The rail company CSX acquires the High Line. At a community meeting in August to discuss options (demolish it? use it as a garbage conduit?), the writer Joshua David and the painter Robert Hammond happen to sit together. In October, they form Friends of the High Line over lunch. Paula Scher of the graphic design group Pentagram donates an insignia. "We were two guys and a logo," Mr. David said.

MARCH 2000 Joel Sternfeld begins a series of photographs documenting the High Line. "We needed people to see what was up there," Mr. Hammond said.

JULY 2001 The Friends hold a benefit at the Mary Boone gallery. "A friend of a friend brought Sandra Bernhard, and we got some coverage," Mr. David said. Another early supporter is Kevin Bacon. "We were trying to figure out" whom he knew, Mr. Hammond said. Mr. Bacon's father, Edmund, a former Philadelphia city planner, wrote "Design of Cities."

JULY 2002 Martha Stewart, whose Starrett-Lehigh building offices overlook the High Line, is host of a benefit with Edward Norton, who had called shortly after the group formed. "We didn't even have an office," Mr. David said. "He had to do some sleuthing." Mr. Norton's father, Edward Sr., was the first chairman of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

JULY 2003 Mr. Norton and Robert Caro, biographer of Robert Moses, chair a fund-raiser at Grand Central Terminal featuring the results of a conceptual redesign competition. The City Council speaker, Gifford Miller, a college classmate of Mr. Hammond, announces that the city will provide $15.75 million of the estimated $65 million cost of restoration.

JULY 2004 $600,000 is raised at a benefit in the West Village studio of the fashion designer Diane Von Furstenberg, a supporter of efforts to preserve the Gansevoort Market near the High Line. "They generously shared her," Mr. David said.

OCTOBER 2004 Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announces $43.25 million in financing for a park. Field Operations and Diller, Scofidio & Renfro are named designers over other celebrated finalists like Steven Holl and Zaha Hadid.

APRIL 2005 A 20-foot model of the High Line park goes on display at the Museum of Modern Art. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2006 with the first section to open a year later. "I would love to say we had this grand plan," Mr. Hammond said. "But we always knew this wasn't about throwing ourselves in front of bulldozers."

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