Freight trains on street-level tracks, run by New York Central Railroad, delivered food to lower Manhattan, but created dangerous conditions for pedestrians; 10th Avenue became known as “Death Avenue.” By 1910, more than 540 people had been killed by trains.
In response to the mounting deaths, the railroad hired men on horses to protect pedestrians: Until their final ride in 1941, the “West Side Cowboys” patrolled 10th Avenue, waving red flags to warn of oncoming trains.
The West Side Improvement project first began when the city’s Transit Commission ordered the removal of street-level crossings; this later led to a plan to remove tracks from the streets and create an elevated rail line.
The first train ran on the High Line—which was then called the “West Side Elevated Line.” The line was fully operational by 1934, transporting millions of tons of meat, dairy, and produce. The lines cut directly through some buildings, creating easy access for factories like the National Biscuit Company (aka Nabisco), which is now the home of Chelsea Market.
Train use dwindled due to the rise in trucking. The southernmost section of the High Line, from Spring to Bank streets, was demolished in the 60s. The decline continued through the 70s, with all traffic stopped by the 80s. Calls for total demolition of the structure soon followed.
With the structure unused, the first roots of the idea to use the High Line for other purposes began to grow. Chelsea resident Peter Obletz formed The West Side Rail Line Development Foundation, seeking to preserve the structure. In the same year, Congress passed the Trail System Act, allowing people to circumvent complicated land rights issues in order to transform old rail lines into recreational areas.
The High Line’s public prospects waxed and waned through the decades. In 1991, the five blocks of the structure from Bank to Gansevoort streets were demolished when a warehouse was converted into an apartment building. In 1999, the High Line owner CSX Transportation opened to proposals for the structure’s reuse.
In the decades of disuse, many people were calling the High Line an ugly eyesore (Mayor Giuliani signed a demolition order, one of his last acts in office). But few of these critics saw what had secretly taken over the structure: a thriving garden of wild plants. Inspired by the beauty of this hidden landscape, Joshua David and Robert Hammond founded Friends of the High Line, a non-profit conservancy, to advocate for its preservation and reuse as a public space. Friends of the High Line remains the sole group responsible for maintenance and operation of the High Line (and is funded by supporters just like you).
To provoke dialogue about the High Line, in a time when its transformation into a park was not yet ensured, Friends of the High Line hosted an “ideas competition,” receiving 720 ideas from over 36 countries for ways the park might be used (including ideas that were neither realistic nor practical, like a rollercoaster, or a mile-long lap pool). At the time, few people had heard of the High Line; the competition helped drive both awareness and excitement.
With strong support from then-Mayor Bloomberg and the City Council, a special zoning area was proposed: The West Chelsea Special District facilitated the use of the High Line as a public park. When the City Council passed the rezoning, the front page of The New York Times read, “Frog of a Railroad to Become Prince of a Park.” Landscape architecture firm James Corner Field Operations; design studio Diller Scofidio + Renfro; and planting designer Piet Oudolf were selected as the team to transform the High Line.
Four years after CSX Transportation donated ownership of the structure to the City of New York, and three years after first breaking ground (in April 2006), the first section of the High Line opened to the public from Gansevoort to 20th streets. High Line Art was founded in 2009, and continues every year to commission and produce artworks on and around the High Line.
With Section 2 of the High Line (20th to 30th streets) open to the public, the New York City Planning Commission approved a zoning text amendment, making possible the third segment, at the Rail Yards. The High Line at the Rail Yards (between 30th and 34th streets and 10th and 12th avenues) opened in 2014, including a temporary walkway.
The High Line is now one, continuous, 1.45-mile-long greenway featuring 500+ species of plants and trees. The park is maintained, operated, and programmed by Friends of the High Line in partnership with the NYC Department of Parks & Recreation. On top of public space and gardens, the High Line is home to a diverse suite of public programs, community and teen engagement, and world-class artwork and performances, free and open to all.