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Photo by Jonathan Flaum

Looking Back at 15 Years of the High Line

By Jennette Mullaney | June 9, 2014

High Line B&W 15, November 2001Photo by Jonathan Flaum

This year the High Line celebrates three important milestones: the 15th anniversary of the founding of Friends of the High Line, the fifth anniversary of the opening of the first section of the park, and the opening of the third and northernmost section of the historic railway. The High Line’s transformation from a derelict structure to one of New York City’s beloved public spaces is due to the tireless and dedicated work of thousands of supporters, donors, volunteers, staff members, and elected officials. The following is a snapshot of some of the more memorable highlights on the incredible journey Friends of the High Line began nearly 15 years ago.


Robert Hammond and Joshua David meet at a community board meeting on a sweltering night in mid-August. The future Co-Founders of Friends of the High Line listen to argument after passionate argument in favor of demolishing the High Line. “I stayed behind afterward, trying to find anyone else who was interested in saving the High Line,” recalls Robert. “There was no one except the guy who had been sitting next to me. He told me that his name was Josh.”


A captivated Joel Sternfeld agrees to photograph the High Line after visiting the structure with Joshua and Robert. Over the course of a year, Sternfeld produces a beautiful, haunting collection of images that would become important tools for the fledgling organization. Only later did the Co-Founders discover that Joel was famous, and realize that they had convinced a world-renowned photographer to capture the structure after a single visit.

Joel Sternfeld, A Railroad Artifact, 30th St, May 2000, 2000/2010.Photo by Luhring Augustine Gallery, New York


Friends of the High Line sues the City of New York under then-Mayor Giuliani’s administration to stop demolition of the High Line. Just days before leaving office, Giuliani signs the demolition papers – a major blow for the Friends.


Mayor Bloomberg assumes office, and Friends of the High Line works to gain the new administration’s support. As part of this push, the organization commissions an economic feasibility study; it determines that the new tax revenues will exceed costs of construction. And in March, Friends of the High Line prevails in its lawsuit against the City.

As the year draws to a close, the Bloomberg administration announces a new pro-High Line policy. “A once-quixotic proposal to turn an abandoned rail line on the far West Side of Manhattan into an elevated public promenade has been formally embraced by the Bloomberg administration, almost exactly a year after the Giuliani administration moved to demolish the hulking structure,” reads the triumphant lede in a December New York Times article. Robert and Josh read and reread the piece, adjusting to the idea that the City had shifted from adversary to friend. “For Robert and me, this victory changed the way that we looked at the High Line and what it meant to our lives. Now there was a chance that it might actually happen,” says Josh.


Robert’s favorite Ideas Competition proposals included a mile-and-a-half-long swimming pool and a roller coaster. “The image of a lap pool running right through Manhattan was very beautiful,” says Robert.Photo by Nathalie Rinne and FRONT Studio New York, New York

With no money, no rights to the structure, and still no guarantee that the High Line was safe from demolition, Friends of the High Line initiates the Ideas Competition. “The competition would be just for ideas – and the ideas didn’t have to be realistic, or fundable, or buildable,” says Robert. Without these constraints, participants would have a great deal of creative freedom.

The 720 entries run the gamut from inspired to a little insane. A proposal for a mile-and-a-half-long swimming pool and one for a roller coaster were Robert’s favorites. However, “the strongest common thread running through the entries was an appreciation for the existing landscape,” he says.

“Of the four finalists, none was realistic,” adds Robert.

In July, Friends of the High Line exhibited the Ideas Competition entries in Grand Central Terminal’s Vanderbilt Hall, where they were viewed by more than 100,000 people.


The search begins for a design team able to harness the creative spirit exhibited in the Ideas Competition and channel it toward something buildable and maintainable. “How do you find the balance between preserving the magic that is up there and creating something new?” wondered Robert.

Friends of the High Line and the City of New York carefully considered 52 proposals, eventually selecting a team comprising landscape architecture firm James Corner Field Operations, architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, planting designer Piet Oudolf, and experts in horticulture, engineering, security, maintenance, public art, and other disciplines. The selected team had stood out from the very beginning; Josh remembers Liz Diller, the principal of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, using the word
illicit. “This team loved the High Line’s dark and mysterious quality, which I was also drawn to,” says Josh.

Learn more about the High Line’s design.


In the spring of 2005, the Museum of Modern Art presented
The High Line, an exhibition featuring designs renderings and a 20-foot model by James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, as well as Joel Sternfeld’s photographs. The MoMA exhibition introduced the High Line to a much wider audience. And it helped to ground the dream of the High Line in reality. The exhibition “didn’t change anything about the legal, political, or financial hurdles that lay ahead. But once we were at MoMA, people thought the High Line was going to happen,” says Robert.


Construction crews break ground for Section 1 – running from Gansevoort Street to 20th Street – and 2 – running from 20th Street to 30th Street – of the High Line. In April, Friends of the High Line holds a groundbreaking ceremony. Hundreds of supporters gathered on the High Line, and thousands more at street level. “The crowd’s happiness for us and for the project felt even greater than our own,” says Josh. “You could feel it beaming up at you.”


On June 8, section 1 of the High Line opens to visitors. The occasion is marked with a ribbon-cutting ceremony. “And then,
snip, after all those speeches and all those years of work, it was over,” recalls Josh. Although the event hadn’t been publicized, there was a rush of people to the park, excited to be among the first visitors. More than four million people followed over the next two years.

In that same year, High Line Art debuts its first commission, Spencer Finch’s The River That Flows Both Ways, and High Line Education launches its field trip program, providing children in grades two through seven with fun, hands-on explorations of the park.


Construction on Section 2 continues at a rapid pace. Trees bound for the Chelsea Thicket arrive in August. In October, the 26th Street Viewing Spur’s steel frame is installed. By December, crews finish rolling out sod on the 23rd Street Lawn.


Section 2 opens to the public in June. Later that summer, the first High Line Food vendors – including Blue Bottle Coffee, Melt Bakery, La Newyorkina, L’Arte Del Gelato, and People’s Pops – come to the High Line.

For much, much more, see our 2011 Year in Photos.


In response to feedback from the community, the High Line recruits ten local teens for a paid alternative spring break program called Green Corps. The week-long green-jobs initiative is so popular – drawing more than 60 applicants – that the High Line expands Green Corps into a six-month program and adds two more programs for teens, Teen Arts Council and Youth Corps.

And in July comes a breakthrough 13 years in the making: the Rail Yards – the High Line’s third and northernmost section – is secured. Friends of the High Line celebrates the official groundbreaking in September.

During a ceremonial moment to mark the start of construction, supporters toss grass and wildflower seeds onto the High Line at the Rail Yards. Some of the seeds were originally collected from the High Line before construction began back in 2006.Photo by Timothy Schenck

See our 2012 Year in Photos for an expanded look at this incredible year.


We welcome our 15-millionth visitor to the park – and a new Executive Director, Jenny Gersten, to Friends of the High Line.

See 2013 Year in Photos for much more.


The High Line at the Rail Yards is scheduled to open in the fall, ushering in another exciting era for our park in the sky. We can’t wait to see what the rest of the future brings.

In this rendering of the Rail Yards’ interim walkway we look northwest, where the High Line curves north at the intersection of West 30th Street and 12th Avenue. This path will allow visitors to take in the wildflowers and grasses that grew between the tracks once travelled by freight trains. Image by James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro.