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High Line Reversal

by Anne Schwartz
December, 2002

The Bloomberg adminstration has taken the first step toward making the abandoned elevated freight line known as the High Line into a public park and promenade. The 1.5-mile viaduct goes from 34th Street to Gansevoort Street on the far West Side, running alongside -- and sometimes through -- warehouses and industrial buildings. Unused since 1980, the rusting rails have been colonized by wildflowers and even trees. Its gritty charm inspired a group called the Friends of the High Line to campaign for the transformation of the line into an aerial greenway, similar to the Promenade Plantee in Paris, an old elevated rail line turned into a green promenade that revitalized the district around it.

The Bloomberg administration filed a request for a certificate of interim trail use from the federal Surface Transportation Board, to preserve the route. In its filing, the city said that it would take on responsibility for managing the right of way as well as legal liability, according to New York Times. If the request is granted, however, it would be just the start of the transformation of the rusting structure into a usable pedestrian promenade. One unanswered question is how the city would find funding for the project in today's economic climate.

The Bloomberg request was a complete reversal from the Giuliani administration's position. Late last year, Giuliani officials reached an agreement with the rail line's manager, the CSX corporation, to have the line demolished. The owners of commercial property along the High Line consider it a dangerous eyesore and an impediment to development in the area, and have sought to have it torn down for years. Mayor Bloomberg, who has shown himself willing to consider new and unconventional ideas, has come down on the side of the visionaries who imagine a new type of open space in New York City. City Council Speaker Gifford Miller supported the mayor's action, saying in the New York Times, "I believe - and I think the administration has also seen - that when you consider the possibilities for a preserved and reused High Line as a public space and a signature moment in the New York landscape, that the positives are almost limitless."

Christo, 20 Years Later

Signaling another potential change from previous city policy, the Central Park Conservancy has given its support to a smaller version of an installation in Central Park first proposed in 1979 by the artist Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude. The artists' plan is to erect a series of rectangular steel gates, each waving a panel of saffron-colored fabric, enclosing and giving definition to the park's curving pathways.

When the idea was first raised, it generated a storm of protest and was rejected in 1981 by the Parks department, in part because of the crowds it would bring into a landscape treasured by New Yorkers for its green beauty and peace.

The Conservancy approved the Christo installation with the caveat that it be considerably scaled down, with 7,500 gates instead of the 11,000 to 15,000 originally proposed, and that there be no disruption to sensitive park areas, no excavation, and minimal use of heavy machinery. Mayor Bloomberg has gone on record in favor of the project, which increases the likelihood that this time around the project will be approved by the parks department.

Anne Schwartz is a freelance writer specializing in environmental issues. Previously, she was the editor of the Audubon Activist, a news journal for environmental action published by the National Audubon Society, and an editor at The New York Botanical Garden.

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The Topic
Parks refers to those areas set aside by the city, state, or federal government for public access and protection of natural resources. Issues relate to the creation, preservation, restoration, maintenance, and best use of these spaces.
The Context
With more than 27,000 acres of parks, playgrounds, beaches and other recreational areas, New York City has the largest city park system in the U.S. (Add to that a state park in every borough, the Gateway National Recreation Area and four botanical gardens.) Yet the city has fewer acres of green space per person than any other major American city, and many neighborhoods lack parks. Community gardens on vacant city lots -- there are more than 750 -- are often the only green oases in low-income, minority communities.
Links in the News
City Audit Faults Park Patrols

Christo's Feat: 25 Years' Work for 16 Days

Water Hazard? Plan to Put Filtration Plant Under Park Angers the Bronx

Falling (Safely) for Artificial Turf

Flower Child -- Profile Of Tessa Huxley

Sites for Beginners
Partnerships for Parks

Project for Public Spaces -- Urban Parks online

Neighborhood Open Space Coalition

NYC Department of Parks and Recreation

Recommended Sites
Friends of the High Line

Privately Owned Public Space

Regional Plan Association

New York Restoration Project

Green Guerillas

Parks Books
A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century
by Witold Rybczynski

Inside City Parks
by Peter Harnik

Private Owned Public Space: The New York City Experience
by Jerold S. Kayden

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