HE High Line is an abandoned 1.5-mile stretch of overgrown railroad viaduct that runs from the Meatpacking district to Hell's Kitchen — and straight into the imaginations of a growing number of New Yorkers who see it as proof that, even in an urban jungle, the forces of nature are still at work.
The idea to turn the old freight route, once condemned to demolition, into a public park has gained momentum over the past five years, culminating in a design competition that attracted 52 entries. On July 16 the proposals of four finalists will go on display at the Center for Architecture on LaGuardia Place near Bleecker Street.
By most standards, the High Line possesses none of the qualities of a park. An elevated rail line 30 to 60 feet wide and two stories above street level, it was built in the 1930's to connect the Pennsylvania Railroad Yards and the warehouses of Greenwich Village. By 1980, most of the industries it had served were defunct, the trains were derailed, the tracks went to seed and the myth began to sprout. It was fertilized by a series of photographs taken in 2000 by Joel Sternfeld, showing off the industrial ruin as a particularly contemporary landscape — the eerie serenity of its black rails sweeping through a snowy strip of stubble in the winter, bristling waves of grass poking out between its steel trusses in the summer.
Last year, the Friends of the High Line, a group of artists, writers and concerned neighbors, invited architects, designers and homegrown visionaries to submit blue-sky ideas for the track's future. It attracted 720 entries from 36 countries, including one proposal to turn the entire length of the railroad bed into a swimming pool. After that, a $15 million commitment from the City Council and a rezoning proposal helped catapult the High Line's revival from long shot to a viable scheme, and a more selective competition for a workable master plan was undertaken.
The caliber of the finalists — from Steven Holl, a Manhattan architect who had previously proposed a series of bridge-shaped houses straddling the rails, to Zaha Hadid, the London-based architect who won the 2004 Pritzker Prize — reflects the seriousness of the project. Total rebuilding, however, is not part of anyone's plan. "The park of the future will be built on industrial sites like this one," said Robert Hammond, a co-founder of the Friends of the High Line. "And we want to show that a park doesn't have to be Central Park to succeed. It can be a thin linear space cutting next to buildings." The winning team will be announced in August, at which point its design will be subject to revision.
The Friends of the High Line and city representatives who will be judging the competition expect contestants to give the High Line a new life and purpose while still respecting its serendipitous character as a streak of wilderness in the city. Slide Show: Proposals for the High Line