June 9, 2009 – five years ago – was a magical day for anyone involved with the High Line.
From the time that Robert Hammond and I founded Friends of the High Line, our goal had been to open the High Line to the public, so that our neighbors and fellow New Yorkers could enjoy the transformative experience of walking a mile-and-a-half, 30 feet in the air, through the centers of 22 city blocks, in a landscape that looked like it had sprung to life from a dream.
But during those first ten years, starting in 1999, when Robert and I first met at a Community Board 4 meeting and decided to form a group to save the High Line from demolition and make it into a park, the public couldn’t go to the High Line. You could only visit in small groups with the permission of CSX, the railroad that owned the out-of-use structure. CSX required that we only visit in the company of a CSX representative and that we submit in advance the names of anyone we wanted to take up. Everyone had to sign a waiver, releasing the railroad from liability, and there was a strict rule against wearing high heels, so that no one would twist their ankle on the uneven terrain.
There were only a couple of ways to get up there. One involved sliding on your belly through a ditch that had been dug under a corrugated steel fence; you had to pull yourselves through by your elbows, dragging yourself over the gravel, rusty metal debris, and bits of broken glass.
The other way involved going through a warehouse – a friend and supporter named Doug Oliver owned it. The building now houses Avenues: The World School, but back then it was a warehouse for ABC television, and all the sets for the soap operas
One Life to Life and All my Children were stored there. So for years, visiting the High Line meant going past half-boxed stage sets for Dorian’s Penthouse and the Styrofoam gravestones from the Llanview Cemetery, before stepping out on to an old railroad platform, and then down onto the High Line.
Because of all these restrictions on access, for ten years, we’d been going up alone or in small groups – just Robert and me with a few community board members or members of local block associations; or with an elected official; or with members of the design team; or with potential donors. There was a beauty to the solitude, but there was also something melancholy about it.
That’s what made the opening day of Section 1, on June 9, 2009, such an amazing contrast. When we cut the ribbon atop the High Line, beneath the Standard hotel, the public could access the High Line for the first time. It seemed to happen in an instant. As soon as our scissors snipped the silk,
bing, the place was full of people. They’d poured up the stairs and were everywhere, doing the things you do in a park: walking the pathways, taking pictures in front of the best views, drinking from water fountains, sitting on benches and soaking up the sun. There was even a bride and groom posing for wedding pictures.
It was a busy day for us. We went up and down the stairs many times, to do one chore or another – and every single time I went up the stairs, with neighbors and New Yorkers going up in front of me and following behind me, I felt joy and amazement – now everyone could go up to the High Line anytime they wanted. No more waivers. No more asking for permission. You could wear high heels! The High Line now was part of the public life of New York City.
I thought the sense of wonder I felt each time I went up the stairs would eventually go away – that it would become normal to me over time. But it never has normalized. Even five years later, every time I go up the stairs to the High Line, and see so many people up there enjoying it, I say to myself,
Wow, it actually happened. For so long it had seemed an impossible dream. And yet that dream came true.
The dream was realized because countless people from all walks of life worked together to make it happen: neighbors, donors, friends, families, landscape architects and architects, urban planners, elected officials, artists, and many more. As word spread on that opening day that the High Line was finally open, they came from all over the city to experience what they had made possible. It felt like a great collective celebration.
For me, the High Line is the embodiment of all the contributions that so many different people made to make this unlikely project a reality. Our friends and neighbors gave up their evenings and weekends to testify at public meetings or to staff information booths at street fairs. Elected officials took real political risks in supporting us. Our early employees left stable jobs to join a fledgling organization that offered no job security. Our donors were inspired to give us the funds we needed to carry the project forward, even though the deck was stacked against us. The members of our design team, led by James Corner Field Operations with Diller Scofidio + Renfro, worked through many a night to keep the project on schedule.
As we were planning the High Line, Robert and I and the design team obsessed over each physical detail. We wanted every aspect of the park design and the planted landscape to be exactly right. This commitment to design innovation and attention to detail helped us create a truly extraordinary place in the city.
But as much as we treasure the High Line’s design and the gorgeous horticultural landscape that the Dutch plantsman Piet Oudolf created, the success of the High Line comes from the passion of the people who joined together to make it happen. The park is steeped in that passion. And the energy that thousands of people bring to the High Line every day – that is what animates the place.
Five years ago, on June 9, 2009, the public came to the High Line for the first time. It is a genuine birthday, because it is on that day that the High Line truly came to life.