anhattan has secrets. Despite millions of daytime residents and hundreds of skyscrapers, it has places as unexpected and out-of-the way as Emily Dickinson's home in Amherst, Mass. One thinks of Chumley's, a former speakeasy on Bedford Street; of Pomander Walk, a private row of Tudor-style cottages out of sight between 94th and 95th Streets; of Sylvan Terrace, a pedestrian-only passageway to the Morris-Jumel mansion with a set of matched wooden row houses; and of half a hundred other spots unknown to ordinary passersby.
But the quirkiest and most invisible place in all of New York City is the High Line, an elevated railroad spur stretching 1.45 miles from the Jacob Javits Convention Center to Gansevoort Street in the once grimy (and now fashionable) meatpacking district. A concrete and steel structure two stories above the sidewalk, it is so big that anyone can see it, but so nondescript and so much a part of the urban landscape that it mostly goes unnoticed.
The High Line was once the southernmost part of Manhattan's major freight route. Built in 1866, the 13-mile-long New York Central and Hudson River Railroad entered the island at Inwood and then ran alongside the Hudson River (through what later became Riverside Park) to 72nd Street. The tracks then continued south on city streets, mostly 11th Avenue, to St. John's Park, bordered by Varick, Hudson, Beach and Laight Streets just below Canal Street. Because the route was at grade all the way, it disrupted traffic and was so dangerous that a rider on horseback had to ride in front of the trains with a red flag. Even so, it earned its nickname, "Death Avenue," honestly.
The High Line was conceived in the late 1920's. One purpose of the $100 million project was to eliminate "Death Avenue" by putting the tracks below grade between 60th and 34th Streets and then two stories above the ground south of that point. Another purpose was to stimulate manufacturing in what was then the most productive and important industrial city in the world. To achieve this end, the two-story High Line viaduct would run through the middle of the block between 10th and 11th Avenues, passing either over or through the structures along the way, making deliveries of raw materials, milk and meat directly into warehouses or factories that were built to allow a train to run through them.
The most difficult engineering feat involved sending heavy freight trains directly through the famed Bell Telephone Laboratories building at Bethune Street. In order to eliminate vibrations that would have disrupted precision instruments, the railroad built caissons independent of the building. Other new structures that accommodated the viaduct included buildings for Swift & Company, the Cudahy Packing Company, and the National Biscuit Company (now the site of Chelsea Market).
The High Line was a good idea. Unfortunately, it didn't work. When the first train rumbled along the track on Aug. 1, 1933, making a delivery to the warehouse of R. C. Williams & Company at 25th Street, manufacturing in New York City was already in decline, the nation was in the middle of the Depression and railroads were languishing across the land. By 1938, more than 77,500 track miles, one-third of the national total, were in receivership.
The High Line had only a few good years, and those were mostly during World War II, when Gotham was the major transshipment point for troops, weapons and supplies heading for the European theater of operations. But after Americans rediscovered their cars and trucks in the postwar years, railroads resumed their long decline. Between the end of the war and 1970, New York area railroads lost half their freight tonnage. The High Line was no exception. Built to last for centuries, it carried its final train, loaded, perhaps apocryphally, with frozen turkeys, in 1980.
Twenty-three years later the High Line still stands. When I first walked along the abandoned tracks in 1982, access to the structure was easy, via any of several sets of stairs. When I ventured up there this fall, I had to have an escort and sign a waiver. But the hassle was worth it. For once I stepped onto the tracks, I entered another world. On a cool New York morning, I saw hyacinths, irises, onion grass and a lone apple tree. The only living creatures I saw were of the winged variety, and they probably find it a blessed miracle that a quiet resting place is available in such an improbable place. (There are no people up there regularly, so no food and thus no rats.)
In places, the track is lined with Art Deco railings. Within these incongruously elegant bounds, vegetation has taken over the rail bed, creating a narrow green walkway past funky nightclubs, aging factories and warehouses, and both old and new apartment buildings. The juxtaposition of high density urban development with hardy urban nature is nowhere on earth so stark or so exciting.
Sadly, the entire structure is off limits to ordinary citizens, which is necessary because the path is uneven and tricky, the old stairways have rusted and broken glass is a threat. And even if you are willing to ignore "No Trespassing" signs and the possibility of arrest, you must be skinny, young and adventurous to slither under, over, or through the barricades.
New York deserves better. The High Line deserves better. A failure as a railroad, it can be successful in a new role more appropriate for 21st century New York. Just as everyone loves Central Park because its meadows and glades allow us to forget that we are in the midst of a huge city, a High Line Park could become a public open space of an altogether different sort, a place that celebrates density and diversity, that shows us how nature can persevere in even the grittiest circumstances, that enables us to understand history not through a book or through a movie but through our own eyes. There is even some precedent for the idea of transforming the High Line into a greenspace. Ten years ago, Paris made an elevated park, the Promenade Plantée, out of an abandoned train viaduct.
Fortunately, the stars are in alignment for such a venture. One group, the Friends of the High Line, has been mobilizing support for the notion for several years now. And while Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani favored tearing down the structure and opening the area to development, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, City Council Speaker Gifford Miller and the City Council as a whole have all publicly endorsed the idea of a public park on the railroad bed. The Republican leadership, in town next summer for their convention, could be enlisted in the effort. And couldn't a High Line Park be incorporated in plans to help lure the Olympics to town in 2012?
Cynical New Yorkers will believe it when they see it. There are a host of development, zoning, and legal issues that could easily undermine the plan or delay it for so long that the High Line could become the West Side version of the Second Avenue Subway. We all know of exciting proposals that never made it beyond the drawing board.
We can't let that happen to the High Line. New York needs more spaces to breathe, more spaces where the city can celebrate its past and its uniqueness. The Hudson River metropolis is not the prettiest or the cleanest or the easiest city in which to live. But it has grown to prominence over the past four centuries by giving people, places and ideas a second chance. The Tweed Courthouse scandalized the nation when it was built 130 years ago, and for decades it stood as a symbol of urban corruption. Recently renovated and refurbished, it now stands in elegance and floodlights as the home of the Department of Education. The High Line can be another story of redemption in New York.
Kenneth T. Jackson, professor of history at
Columbia University, is president of the
New-York Historical Society. Abelardo Morell,
professor of art at the Massachusetts
College of Art in Boston, is author of ‘‘A
Book of Books.’’
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