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The City

Manhattan Up Close

The Charming Gadfly Who Saved the High Line

Peter Richards

When Peter Obletz entertained in his vintage rail cars, “you felt you were leaving New York,” said Paul Rudnick, a frequent guest, “and in a sense planet Earth.”

Published: May 13, 2007

FOR all the giddiness surrounding the transformation of the High Line, the city’s favorite elevated railway, into a linear park running from the meatpacking district to Hell’s Kitchen, nearly one-third of it remains in danger of being torn down. The stretch between 30th and 34th Streets, where the High Line loops gracefully around parts of the railyards between 10th and 12th Avenues, is shaping up as the last battleground for the innovative project.

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Marilynn K. Yee/The New York Times

The High Line.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which owns the railyards and plans to sell or lease the sites atop them for development, announced last week that the agency and the city supported retaining the High Line at the railyards. But both the city and the transit authority stopped short of promising to preserve the elevated structure.

It is fitting that the railyards are the final frontier in the long campaign to save the High Line, because it was in this very area that the original High Line preservationist, Peter Obletz, lived more than a quarter-century earlier. Moreover, were it not for the quixotic efforts of Mr. Obletz, an eccentric neighborhood visionary, to return it to use, the structure might well have been demolished a generation ago.

For Mr. Obletz, the railyards west of Penn Station were not a hotly contested development opportunity, but literally his backyard. Beginning in the late 1970s, when the western fringe of Hell’s Kitchen was such a forbidding wasteland after dark that cabbies would not take riders there, Mr. Obletz lived in the railyards in a formerly derelict concrete-block railroad building near 30th Street and 11th Avenue. Next door, on a spur of track, he kept two elegantly appointed antique rail cars he had obsessively restored.

A train buff’s train buff, Mr. Obletz worked as a real estate consultant for the transit authority and gave elaborate dinner parties in his gleaming, 68-ton Pullman dining car. Places were set with New York Central Railroad china and flatware, with the host sometimes attired in a blue velvet smoking jacket and saddle shoes.

“He was an absolute charmer,” said the playwright Paul Rudnick, who along with other creative types like the choreographer Tommy Tune was a guest. “It was such a treat to visit him because you felt you were leaving New York, and in a sense planet Earth. You’d entered Train Land.”

Mr. Obletz’s rail cars sat a stone’s throw from a long, rusting overhead structure. One day he climbed a metal staircase and stepped with astonishment onto what he later learned was the defunct 1934 freight railway known as the High Line.

“It was a terra incognita up there,” Mr. Obletz told a New York Times reporter for a 1984 article. “Unrestricted space. Unimaginable tranquillity.”

His trip to this rusting urban mountaintop revealed to him his life’s work. Transfixed by the High Line’s rugged beauty, and foreseeing how the structure could act as a magnet for development of the far West Side, he dreamed not only of renewing freight service but of running trains that would convey passengers along the West Side and even link with light-rail service to Albany.

“It was Peter’s sacred mission,” said Jeff Rosenberg, a lifelong friend.

But Mr. Obletz, who ultimately became chairman of Community Board 4, was more than a dreamer. He was a relentlessly practical tinkerer who had a knack for taking apart broken things and rebuilding them.

While studying arts administration at the Yale School of Drama in the early ’70s, he taught himself Italian so he could read auto manuals that allowed him to fix up Lamborghini sports cars for resale. In New York, he was forever scavenging discarded machine parts, which he cobbled together into mechanical behemoths that Peter Richards, a longtime roommate, remembers as “the mothers of all washing machines.”

But his most ambitious do-it-yourself reclamation project was his crusade to resurrect the High Line.

In 1984, Conrail, which owned the elevated structure, began taking steps to abandon it, but first was required to offer it for sale to any group that might use it to run a freight operation. Mr. Obletz swooped in and bought the High Line for $10.

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