ON THE High Line, all seems still. The roar of Manhattan still crams
your ears — the sirens, the coursing streets, those loud American
voices. But even two storeys up from the sidewalk the full-grown trees,
beautifully blooming weeds and buxom shrubbery seem to muffle
Maybe it’s the imagination. Scampering up to this derelict
railway viaduct from Tenth Avenue is like walking through Alice’s
Looking Glass into the Secret Garden. You step from the chic grime of
Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen and Meatpacking, New York’s most feverishly
gentrifying neighbourhoods, into another world, one and a half miles
and 6.7 acres of wilderness Manhattan Eden, coursing through 22 blocks
of prime real estate, left to rot and bloom in one of the densest
cities on earth, where — round here — a square foot can lighten your
pocket by $2,500 (£1,350). So much space for free seems obscene.
You’re not meant to be up here. This is private property. But
in less gentrified times, when the razor wire was more forgiving,
locals would sneak a trespass. A bevy of clubbers at 4am, maybe. Or,
five years ago, perhaps Joshua David.
David, a freelance journalist, is co-founder of Friends of the
High Line, set up with the artist Robert Hammond in 1999 to find a new
future for the viaduct. “I lived here for 13 years and hardly noticed
the thing. When you walk past, you just see little fragments. You get
no idea of its enormousness,” he says.
The High Line has been part of the West Side’s landscape for
decades, just another forgotten chunk of the city you take for granted
but would miss like a limb if it were demolished. Every town’s got
architectural detritus left by the eddying streams of progress. Even
the city that never sleeps.
When it opened in 1934, the High Line was progress,
built as a vastly expensive Depression-age programme designed to pump
life back into the neighbourhood by speedily railroading freight
straight into warehouses, putting an end to Death Avenue, the
street-level railroad, so named for all the pedestrian fatalities it
It came too late. Progress moved on. Railways were going bust across America, and factories were fleeing to the ‘burbs.
In the Fifties and Sixties it suffered death by a thousand
Beeching-style cuts and, in 1980, ground to a halt; its last delivery,
appropriately, frozen turkeys. This fragment survived simply because it
was in what was until the late Nineties one of Manhattan’s less
Florent Morellet, a restaurateur and fellow High Line
enthusiast, opened his French diner, Florent, on Gansevoort Street in
1985. “They thought I was craaaazy,” he says. “It was just meatpackers,
truck drivers and gay clubs. Then the transgender prostitutes moved in.
And the crack dealers.” And then the artists. And then, in
gentrification’s usual domino effect, the real estate brokers.
Today, Morellet’s neighbourhood has a surreal air, with 25
meatpackers left shifting offal beside high-class fashion boutiques
such as Jeffrey’s.
This is the city that invented gentrification back in the
1960s, when artists such as Warhol and Rauschenberg found beauty in the
dirty dereliction of SoHo’s emptying industrial warehouses. Exactly the
same is happening today with the High Line — once worthless, now
“revalued” by Chelsea and Meatpacking’s incoming arty middle class, who
see beauty in its shabby wilderness. It’s exotic in a shiny,
overdeveloped city whose industrial past has all but disappeared.
Only to developers the High Line is an eyesore depressing land
values, exactly what was thought of the now priceless loft apartments
in SoHo. With real estate on the rise again in New York, there are big
plans for the West Side, one of the least developed parts of the city.
The question is the same one being played out at Ground Zero, the one
that’s always played out on city streets: how to reconcile real estate
and what Morellet calls “a sense of place”.
Back in the 1980s one spirited local railway enthusiast, Peter
Obletz, tried to get the High Line’s trains running again. He backed
the wrong economic horse. The new New York has nothing to do with
industry; rather, it’s the consumerist playground of Carrie Bradshaw in
Sex and the City.
People will pay for the kind of arty urban experience offered by
a step up on to the High Line. It’s the so-called Bilbao effect. The
architect Steven Holl got it right. Twenty years ago he proposed
turning the High Line into a “bridge of houses”, an urban promenade.
David and Hammond followed suit, holding, last year, an ideas
competition for the High Line’s future, attracting 720 entries which
proposed turning the viaduct into cow pastures, rollercoasters and one
long swimming pool.
The “urban promenade” is all the rage these days, from the
London Eye to Paris Plage, Mayor Bernard Delanoë’s astonishingly
successful beach along the Seine. But in David and Hammond’s mind was
another of the grands projets in Paris. In 1998 a derelict
railway viaduct shadowing Avenue Daumesnil across the 12th
arrondissement from the Place de la Bastille reopened as the Promenade
Plantée, a three- mile (4.8 km) rooftop park, allowing you to indulge
your nosyparkerness by peering into apartments.
The question was how to convince New York’s city authorities
to back such fripperies. Gentrification was David’s argument. On the
one hand it gave him powerful local friends, such as Hillary Clinton,
Harvey Keitel, Cynthia Nixon of Sex and the City, Cindy Sherman
and Glenn Close, all of whom attend a glamorous yearly fundraiser
hosted by Edward Norton and the designer Diane von Furstenberg. But
David also had to appeal to that age-old Manhattan quality, greed fused
elegantly with civic altruism. The Friends handed the city a study
showing how, by not demolishing the High Line but turning it into a
public asset, property prices would rise in the neighbourhood.
Ground Zero might be all rancour but elsewhere in the city
Michael Bloomberg, the mayor, has pursued a less confrontational
approach to urban planning than Rudy Giuliani (who was all for the High
Line’s demolition). He’s brought in young, zippy staff, such as the
city head of planning, Amanda Burden, keen on loosening slightly the
zoning rules that have segmented New York rigidly since 1916, to
release land for developers — though without alienating Manhattan’s
powerful community activists — to create a more “mixed use”, diverse
“The High Line is such a magical space,” says Burden, “ugly,
but with a unique character. I always said that if ever I got into a
position of power this would be my highest priority. And now I am.”
The trick is to make the magic work for everyone. “This is a
real-estate-driven city, and developers are always looking for the
bottom line. But then the mayor has always insisted that architecture
is a great economic developer.”
The answer? With one hand the city plans to protect the
hundreds of galleries that today line the High Line as an “art and
culture” district by turning the viaduct into an urban promenade; the
city will reward developers who give public access. With the other hand
the surrounding area will be re-zoned from mainly industrial to
residential, to please the developers by allowing 4,200 new apartments.
Owners of properties near the High Line will be able to sell
“air rights” to new developers to build taller buildings along Tenth
and Eleventh Avenues, while keeping roofs low along the line,
protecting its surreal views through the cityscape. Solomon couldn’t
have done better.
This summer the high-profile finalists in the High Line’s
masterplan competition have been on display at the Centre for
Architecture. I prefer the least interventionist of all, that of
TerraGRAM, who want to keep — even accelerate — the High Line’s
wilderness qualities, that Secret Garden. But, according to The New York Times
last week, a team has been provisionally selected comprising the
landscape designers Field Operations, architects Diller Scofidio &
Renfro and the artist Olafur Eliasson, who created the phenomenally
popular artificial sun, the Weather Project, at Tate Modern this year.
Their proposal balances man-made and “natural”, the heroic and
the wilderness, most radically. They call it “agri-ecture”, “a
post-industrial instrument of leisure life and growth”, which weaves
hard landscape — undulating concrete boardwalk arching high, meandering
low, over galleries, market places, public swimming pool, beach, and
daringly cantilevered amphitheatre — into soft vegetation, here woods,
marshland, wilderness, meadows, there preened municipal borders, ending
by the Gansevoort Meat Market in a gallery and staircase with a glass
wall that turns butchering into a spectator sport. It has “magic” in
With the Friends confident about raising up to £100 million,
work could begin in the autumn on a low-rise project whose subtlety and
intelligence could, in the end, put Ground Zero’s Freedom Tower, all
1,776ft (541 metres) of it, in the shade.
4 Teams, 4 Visions: Design Approaches to the High Line is at the Centre for Architecture, New York (001-212 6830023, www.aiany.org), until Sept 2