ature - apart from the human kind - rarely gets a chance to reclaim Manhattan. But nature has done just that on the High Line, the derelict railroad track that runs from the Javits Convention Center to Gansevoort Street above the far West Side. The High Line was finished in 1934 and abandoned in 1980. What was once a stark industrial corridor, a relic of the Depression, began to seed itself with grasses and wildflowers, as if it were the site of a novel experiment in island biogeography.
The coalition to restore the High Line, led by Friends of the High Line, has been driven as much by the beauty of that strange natural landscape - a weedy right-of-way running through and above the city - as it has by the actual real estate involved.
The power of nature's reclamation is visible in the plan selected last week for the restoration of the High Line, offered by Field Operations, a landscape firm, and the architectural firm Diller, Scofidio & Renfro. Though its context is resolutely urban - how could it be otherwise? - the heart of the proposal is a series of gardens.
Some will be in the idiom of Piet Oudolf, whose work draws its inspiration from wild grasslands and natural plantings, and some will pay homage to the formal properties of the city, to the way gardens tend to group and focus human activity. In the 22-block length of the High Line, there will be room, this plan suggests, to interweave pedestrian walkways, an outdoor amphitheater, a swimming pool and a sloping beach. But the aesthetic heart of the proposal is the preservation in some places of the High Line just as it is.
Once, it seemed the sure way to increase property values along the High Line was to tear it down. Now, thanks to Friends of the High Line and its supporters, the sure way to increase property values in the shadow of that railway is to keep it standing and to restore it. The High Line represents a new kind of urban progress utterly consistent with the original rediscovery of SoHo, for instance, or the settlement of Dumbo. It is a reminder, as is ground zero, of how often the city's forward movement depends not on long-range planning but on making the very best use of the accidents, and the tragedies, of our history. Instead of an eyesore, the High Line, which is now inaccessible private property, stands poised to become a public urban skyway - a garden skyway - of a kind that no one would ever have built on purpose.
Getting the planning this far has taken a near-miracle of imagination and political skill. So will the job of keeping the restoration true to its planners' vision. Since the 1980's, Chelsea and the meatpacking district (the High Line's ground-floor neighbors) have surged into popularity. The city's plan to redevelop the far West Side of Midtown, including misguided hopes to build a football stadium there, will also bring extraordinary pressures to bear on the territory around the High Line.
What those old freight tracks have become so far has been the product of accidental beauty - the serendipity of failure. The trick will be to preserve those qualities in planning for what the High Line might become as the city embraces it. Protecting that balance is the strength of the winning proposal by a notable group of architects and landscape designers. They will need all the help they can get.