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May 15, 2004
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An Eden Above the City
* An abandoned overhead railway in Manhattan is an eyesore to many. But others see untapped potential in the rare open space.

Seeing Potential
Seeing Potential
(Tina Fineberg / For The Times)
Unused Open Space
Unused Open Space
(Tina Fineberg / For The Times)
A long walk waiting
A long walk waiting
May 15, 2004
  Times Headlines
By Robert Lee Hotz, Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — In the warrens of Manhattan, a meadow hovers above the asphalt outwash of warehouses and abandoned factories.

It flowers on a vacant viaduct with a seasonal canopy of Queen Anne's lace, purple aster, hyacinth, wild cherry, scallions, moss and iris — seeded by vagrant birds and the wind.


They call it the High Line.

The derelict ribbon of elevated railway threads through the upper stories of Manhattan's far West Side for almost 1 1/2 miles.

The tracks, unused for nearly a quarter-century, disappear into warehouses and dodge between buildings in an architectural game of hide-and-seek.

While thousands of people scurry under its stained steel supports every day, unaware of what is overhead, the High Line has become nature's own urban renewal project.

Ambitious redevelopment plans also are blooming here.

Where generations of New Yorkers had only seen a rusting eyesore that blocked the light, two urban pioneers saw the potential for a park in a metropolis starved for open space. After all, local soccer leagues play matches on a rooftop and golfers practice fairway drives on a pier.

When freelance writer Joshua David and painter Robert Hammond first followed their curiosity over a barbed-wire fence onto the High Line five years ago, they found themselves on an elevated avenue of greenery that overlooked the art galleries of Chelsea and the designer boutiques of the Meatpacking District — two of the city's newly fashionable neighborhoods.

To the west, there were shimmering vistas of the Hudson River; to the east, the Empire State Building towered.

The abandoned railway, the pair realized, could become a place where pedestrians could stroll unimpeded for 22 blocks, suspended nearly 30 feet in places above the hustle of the streets.

"It is a beautiful, dreamy, evocative landscape … a unique urban ecosystem," David said. "Yet it was relatively invisible."

People can't easily reach the High Line from the street. The stairways have vanished and the entrances — although hidden — are protected by padlocks and railroad security.

David and Hammond were galvanized by the idea that an open space of such magnitude could exist in New York City and that no one could get to it.

The pair launched the Friends of the High Line preservation drive, which quickly became one of the city's most fashionable causes. Today, it has about 6,000 supporters and a $1-million annual budget. There is a staff of seven, a newsletter, a promotional video, a website and an ambitious outreach program. A yearly fundraiser, hosted by fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg and actor Edward Norton, has become a staple on New York's society pages.

"They have been very creative in generating a buzz and engaging people," said Frank Uffen, managing director of New Amsterdam Consultants, a firm involved in redeveloping a mile-long viaduct in downtown Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

Architects and designers now nurture visions of an urban wilderness on the High Line — along with schemes for windmill farms, botanical gardens, an aerial tramway and, improbably, overhead cow pastures, all connected to the street by elevators and stairs.

One designer offered a plan for turning the rail line into an inner-city roller coaster. Another proposed creation of a High Line swimming pool, with lap lanes 1 1/2 miles long.

This month, David and Hammond are helping city planners evaluate seven design teams competing to oversee development of a master plan. The seven were picked in April from 52 groups of architects, urban planners and landscape designers.

David and Hammond estimate the price tag for renovation and landscaping will be $40 million to $60 million, to be paid with public and private funds.

Vintage viaducts are the newest enthusiasm of urban preservationists recycling America's past.

Community groups from Chicago to Philadelphia to the Florida Keys have mobilized to turn the abandoned rail lines into parks — many inspired by the transformation of a crumbling 19th century Parisian viaduct into a 3-mile-long botanical garden.

The Promenade Plantee, which opened in 1998, is linked by elevators and stairways to the Avenue Daumesnil nearby. In the space beneath its 60 stone arches, Paris urban planners encouraged construction of art galleries, cafes and artisans' studios.

As much as anything, said transportation archeologist Thomas Flagg, the reclamation projects have arisen from a change of heart toward abandoned industrial structures.

Nostalgia for a vanishing manufacturing economy joins with post-modern artistic sensibilities and, driven by real estate speculation, blight becomes beauty.

"All the space is getting filled in," said Ben Helphand, who recently helped organize Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail to reclaim 37 rail bridges along Chicago's North Side. "What do you have left but these unused industrial areas?

"You see them in a new light. The reinvention of these is happening all over the place."

In Florida, state park planners are piecing together the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail by converting unused rail lines and reclaiming 17 railroad bridges. They expect the trail to run 106 miles, from Key Largo to Key West.

In the same spirit, Philadelphia neighborhood activists last year organized to transform a 4.7-mile-long elevated railway called the Reading Viaduct into a pedestrian parkway.

"We have been living with this thing for a long time and dreaming it could be something else," said local artist Sarah McEneaney, who helped organize the preservation drive.

"It goes through all these different neighborhoods that are not really tied together. The viaduct could become a community bridge."

What spurred her to take action?

One day, she heard Joshua David at a neighborhood meeting describe his hopes for the High Line.

The High Line, bordering 10th Avenue, is 296,000 square feet of undeveloped space in a city where a $1-million, two-bedroom apartment can fit into 980 square feet.

Completed in 1934, it was part of the $125-million West Side Improvement Project, which was an astronomical public investment for the height of the Depression.

The project was designed to speed rail shipments to the area's factories, while also removing a major public danger.

By raising the railroad above street level, officials eliminated dozens of hazardous track crossings: So many pedestrians had been killed or maimed in rail accidents that the street had come to be known as "Death Avenue."

The viaduct, broad enough to carry two freight trains at a time, snakes past third-story windows and through elevated warehouse sidings.

When the High Line was built, the project required private right-of-way agreements through 350 properties, according to records of the New York Central Railroad, which originally owned it. A total of 640 buildings had to be removed.

The last train rolled down those tracks in 1980, carrying a load of frozen turkeys. By that time, trucks had overtaken trains as the preferred method for freight shipments. The West Side industries the viaduct served also had withered. Factories and warehouses were shuttered.

People have been fighting over the future of the High Line ever since.

Conrail now owns the line through a subsidiary, and CSX, the railroad conglomerate, has managed the structure since 1999. While the railroad has been studiously neutral about the fate of the High Line, officials are eager to see some resolution, said CSX project management consultant Lauri Izes.

The parcels of land directly beneath the viaduct are owned by New York state, New York City and 20 private owners — many of whom have long sought its demolition.

The High Line is, at its essence, a right of passage.

The easement in the air that the railroad created allowed movement across so many public and private boundaries that it would be impossible to re-create today, community planners say.

If the physical structure were demolished, that intangible asset would vanish as well.

In a city that seethes with real estate schemes and redevelopment intrigue, Hammond and David have orchestrated a dramatic reversal.

Five years ago, demolition of the High Line seemed all but assured. Landlords and small businesses that owned the land directly below the High Line were eager to see it cleared away, in the hope that their property values would soar.

Today, reclamation and renovation appear almost certain.

"They have taken the momentum away from the developers who wanted to tear it down," Flagg said. "Their dedication to creating a public good out of all this seems to be carrying the day."

When Hammond, 34, and David, 40, began their quest, there was virtually unanimous political support for demolition of the High Line.

Now, Republican Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has endorsed the project, as have the state's two Democratic U.S. senators, Charles E. Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

City Council Speaker Gifford Miller recently earmarked $15 million to plan and design the park, and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) included $5 million for the High Line in the House version of the pending six-year federal transportation bill.

The state has yet to weigh in. Federal approvals needed for the park project are in abeyance, partly because the commissions involved have long lacked enough members for a valid vote.

"We still have a ways to go," Hammond said. "There are hurdles. Political coalitions are always fragile."

But if all goes according to plan, work could begin this fall on a final design. A competition last year drew 720 design proposals from 36 countries, many of which were exhibited at Grand Central Terminal. These all were exercises in imagination, meant only to explore the possibilities.

Before any real design begins, city officials must choose a team from among the seven candidates under consideration. That team will help manage development of final plans. Those plans must be approved by the city.

For all the fashionable enthusiasm, however, the future of the High Line depends in large measure on the fate of other ambitious projects proposed for this section of Manhattan.

The line begins to the north, at the site of the New York Jets' proposed stadium along the Hudson River. The football team wants to turn a quarter-mile of the High Line into a pedestrian walkway that would lead into a 75,000-seat stadium. An expansion of the nearby convention center also is being debated.

The viaduct ends to the south over Gansevoort Market in the Meatpacking District, where David and Hammond recently opened a third-floor office for the High Line group they founded.

The view from their window encompasses the past and the future of the High Line neighborhoods.

On one side of the street below, meatpackers in bloody aprons shovel fresh offal from the cobblestones by the Dumpster load. Animal carcasses swing on conveyor hooks along the sidewalk for the purveyors of fresh shin meats, pork and beef.

Across the way, retailers cater to the appetite for fresh attitude. Art galleries, fusion restaurants and stylish boutiques line the street. Stella McCartney and other designers have opened shops.

As unmistakable evidence that the gentry are homesteading here, city planners last year declared the market area a historic preservation district.

City planners also unveiled a rezoning proposal to turn the adjacent High Line neighborhoods into a special redevelopment district.

If approved, the proposal would allow construction of up to 4,200 high-rise apartments and condominiums. The zoning plan would, however, preserve the line and the local warehouses that have become home to more than 200 art galleries.

A harbinger of the streetscape to come can be found at the viaduct's midpoint, where neglect and urban renewal have fostered a modest neighborhood revival.

There, by the corner of West 23rd Street and 10th Avenue, author and Vanity Fair writer Sebastian Junger recently opened a sidewalk cafe. Students, French tourists and local artists loll in the shade cast by the High Line's Art Deco balustrade.

The front of the art galley next door is clad in steel plates that consciously echo the patina of the railroad viaduct.

For now, the High Line passing overhead remains an afterthought.

Wreathed in grape hyacinth, its bulwarks frame parking signs, vintage graffiti and a set of garish billboards.

Gallery-goers mill along the sidewalks, oblivious to the possibilities taking root in the relic above them.