Beyond the Hype

­Our columnist takes a walk on the High Line, one of the most eagerly anticipated new parks in many years.

By Karrie Jacobs

Posted June 17, 2009

How many articles have you read about the High Line in the decade since Joshua David and Robert Hammond began their unlikely quest to rescue an elevated freight line running along the West Side of Manhattan? There were endless stories about the original preservation battle, illustrated by those glorious Joel Sternfeld photos of New York’s secret meadow. In 2004, when Friends of the High Line, the organization founded by David and Hammond, held a design competition (won by Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro), the renderings were everywhere. And there have been plenty of pieces, in this magazine and others, that focused on the leadership role of the landscape-architecture firm Field Operations and its principal, James Corner. Has a project ever been more hyped?

I always wanted the High Line to be preserved, but I also wanted it to be left alone. I thought—and still think—it was sad that Manhattan had been developed to the point where there was no room or tolerance for decay (at least aboveground; the subway system is another matter). I’ve occasionally thought of the High Line as a symbol of an overheated design culture that shuns the ordinary or the unstylish.

In April, however, Joshua David took me on a walk along the southern portion of the 1.45-mile park, in advance of its opening this month. And as we sauntered past the original tracks, reinstalled precisely where they were when they carried trains, it slowly dawned on me that this might be a truly rare phenomenon: a widely anticipated event actually better than its hype. I followed David, his hipster goatee acting as a chic counterpoint to his white hard hat, who pointed out the skinny baby trees of the “Gansevoort Woodlands” and the pink and yellow blossoms sprouting from mulch near the “Sundeck Preserve.” The High Line’s place names seem to come from the realm of boyish fantasy games, but the landscape itself is wonderfully restrained, a mannered but heartfelt homage to the wild growth of the rail line’s period of abandonment. As Hammond once told me, the High Line’s designers endeavored to “save the structure from architecture.”

Granted, at the moment it opens, the High Line will be the height of fashion, crowded with the sorts of people who generally have no use for public space. (Fashion, after all, is in its DNA: Diane von Furstenberg is one of its major boosters. Her headquarters sits in a luxuriously rehabbed old building nearby. Strollers will peer into the rooftop geodesic bubble that houses her conference room.) But unlike a fabulous new restaurant that will live its fruit-fly life and disappear, the High Line, assuming its nascent conservancy can proper­ly fund and maintain it, should be around forever.

What I love about the High Line is that it offers the pedestrian an experience akin to a train ride, because it meanders through places you ordinarily can’t go. The height, about three stories up, is just enough to alter your point of view. It’s voyeur height rather than spectacle height. It immerses you in the city instead of elevating you above it.

As David and I strolled along the walkways, noticing moor grass and milkweed poking out between concrete piers like opportunistic city foliage squeezing through cracks in the pavement, we paused now and then to admire the panorama. We peered west at the Hudson River, sandwiched between former refrigerated warehouses and industrial bakeries; then east down the length of 14th Street, with its motley texture, looking like the most perfect New York street. “I love this vista,” David says. “You never think of 14th as an inspiring street, but it is from here.”

More intriguing are the other glimpses of activity quickly rising around the High Line. From here, you’ll be able to see New York’s most convincing 21st-century cityscapes. At the southern end of the High Line, on Gansevoort Street just west of Wash­ington, an old meatpacking plant is being demolished to make way for the Whitney Museum of American Art’s downtown branch, a Renzo Piano–designed inversion of the uptown Breuer building that will step down to meet the High Line. Immed­iately north is the newly opened Standard Hotel. A skinny lozenge on piers that straddles the High Line, it’s surely the best thing that has ever emerged from Polshek Partnership. At the north end of the section that will open in June—beyond Tenth Avenue Square, with its sunken amphitheater, and the Chelsea Grasslands—is the most remarkable cluster of new buildings in New York: Frank Gehry’s distinctive IAC headquarters (built for von Fur­stenberg’s husband, Barry Diller); Jean Nouvel’s Eleventh Avenue condo tower, clad in a glass mosaic textured like lizard skin; Shigeru Ban’s condos, with exter­ior walls formed by rolling metal shutters; and a tidy green-glass condo designed by Annabelle Selldorf. Immediately to the east, you see the skin­ny frame of Neil Denari’s first building, HL23, poking up behind a billboard. Is the High Line responsible for this creative efflorescence? Maybe not entirely, but it certainly seems to figure prominently in the imaginations of those who finance and market condos. “These are the things we hoped would happen,” David says. His theory is that the High Line will define its neighborhood in much the way that Gramercy Park did.

My take is slightly different. The High Line reminds me of Park Avenue, which was formed at the end of the 19th century when a lid was constructed over the dirty, noisy railroad tracks that run through a trench in the middle of Manhattan. Park Avenue, which became the 20th century’s best address, is perhaps the original example of urban alchemy: from blight to bling.

I’ve become a fan of the High Line because I think it will be a successful and important public space and, more important, because it allows me to dream. It suggests unlimited opportunities for transforming eyesores into assets, for radical adaptive reuse. Surely, in the rail line’s heyday we didn’t know that at some point we’d no longer need freight trains to supply the city’s West Side factories with raw ingredients—or that someday we wouldn’t even need the factories themselves. Sim­ilarly, right now we can’t imagine that one day we might no longer have a use for the elevated express­ways that bisect our neighborhoods.

Maybe it’s time to look at ugly, damaging infrastructure with new eyes. Lower Manhattan’s far West Side has flourished because the elevated West Side Highway was removed decades ago—it was literally falling down—and environmental activists in the Bronx are trying hard to get rid of the elevated Sheridan Expressway. But what I fantasized about on my tour of the High Line was how this formula could be adapted to other situations. What if we simply made alternative plans for the land beneath and around an invasive structure like Brooklyn’s Gowanus Expressway, with the aim of eventually appropriating the roadways on top for uses other than automobile traffic? And wouldn’t the Pulaski Skyway, high above the New Jersey Meadowlands, make a stunning park? The High Line outperforms its hype because it says something simple and profound: Anything is possible.

Web extra: View a slide show of Ofer Wolberger’s photos of the High Line on our Multimedia page.

Read more about this story on the June 2009 Reference page.

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