The Design Observer Group

Posted 09.18.09

Ian Baldwin

The Past Is Promenade: On the High Line

[photo credit: Jenna Park via Sweet Fine Day]

The High Line opened this past June, infusing New York with a commodity rare in a crowded city ruled by private capital: first-class public space. It sits, thanks partly to its own publicity, right in the middle of what has become the city’s most fashionable neighborhood. Not since Bryant Park on 42nd Street was refurbished and refined in 1992 has a park come online with such visibility.

Endeavors like Bryant Park, and the comeback success of the city in general, have changed expectations in the past 15 years. The idea of converting a derelict rail viaduct into a green promenade, once audacious, now seems obvious. Even boring. “The only letdown,” one blogger wrote, “is that [the High Line] rises to and exactly fulfills all the expectations presented by the years-long media blitz it inspired.” The mission-accomplished ennui was echoed by a group of young women I overheard on the sidewalk the weekend the line opened. Walking on it was great, they seemed to agree, but there was nothing to do but walk on it.

Fine with me. On an increasingly crowded and increasingly generic island of 1.6 million, I am happy for more elbow room atop what must be one of the most unique public spaces in the world. I have walked the Promenade Plantée in Paris, the stone railway viaduct that was the model for the High Line's conversion, and the High Line is better.

It cuts through blocks, squeezes into the second floors of buildings, and even drops down to a giant window over Tenth Avenue, shoving casual strollers into the maw of urban terrain. There is a continuous slide show of infinite perspectives on the city side, the silver crawl of the river on the other. And for the moment, the scene is properly downtown, “the most extraordinary fashion promenade you can imagine,” as a New York Times correspondent enthused.

Death Avenue
Before it was an open-source catwalk, the High Line was the first phase of a much larger project to move freight more efficiently into the city. The New York Central’s freight yard ended at 59th street, so trains packed with butter, eggs, meat, milk, poultry and livestock for downtown wholesalers and meatpackers had to be pulled by steam locomotives down the middle of Tenth Avenue at six miles per hour, led by a horseman waving a red flag. Plans to eliminate this slow and hazardous process (Tenth was known as “Death Ave”) had been drawn up as early as World War I. Robert Moses prodded the project forward in the 1930s, folding in an auto highway on the west side (the now-demolished Miller Highway) and the rebuilding of Riverside Park to carry the Henry Hudson Parkway and cover the railroad’s tracks.

[photo credit: author unknown]

The High Line took the trains off the street, replaced the steam locomotives with electric ones, and offered onsite delivery via sidetracks spurring into buildings along the way. The “outstanding feature,” according to the railroad in a pamphlet issued for the line’s 1934 opening, was the enormous new freight terminal covering the western end of Houston Street. Here, 14 elevators carried freight between eight tracks at the second floor and 127 truck bays at street level. But the trucks ended up taking the railroad’s freight business for themselves. Beginning in the 1960s, the half-mile section of the line running from the freight terminal to where it ends today at Gansevoort St. was removed. Service over the line ended with a now famous shipment in 1980, three boxcars of frozen turkeys (no account of the line’s history can resist mentioning the turkeys).

The High Line stood silent above Chelsea for the next two decades, as developers and property owners lobbied the city to pull down the rest of the structure. From underneath it was decrepit, from above it was an incongruous strip of brown and green, from the trackbed it was . . . who knew? Its only visitors were graffiti writers, the homeless and occasional after-hours clubgoers evading the police.

But in 2001, there was a moment of collective discovery. Joel Sternfeld’s astonishing images (published in Places, among other venues) revealed the secret garden of tall grasses and ballast gravel, skewed steel rails and crumbling concrete sidings that lay just out of sight from the street. Here was a slice of the city that had done nothing but sleep for 20 years, an accidental landscape evolved in response to climate and train-free habitation.

[photo credit: Jenna Park via Sweet Fine Day]

In pre-9/11 New York, when money spun thick and fast into the new galleries, retailers, dotcom ventures and of-the-moment restaurants popping up in far-west Chelsea, the pictures seemed like a form of visual dissent. Here was entropy’s dividend, an urban prairie where New Yorkers could make their stand against — or at least find shelter from the onslaught of — rampant upscaling. A nonprofit dedicated to park conversion had gotten up and running in 2000. Much media coverage and a design competition followed. The park opened a few weeks before the line’s 75th birthday.

Slow Corridor
The High Line’s form comes from its past as a route linking the last mile of urban commerce to a vast network of railways. The novelty of an elevated park is exhilarating, but the future of the space is less about the High than the Line. When the initial buzz and the weather cools, and the pathways become less clogged with New Yorkers impersonating parading tourists on the Brooklyn Bridge, it will emerge as neither city nor park nor movement infrastructure but as a hybrid creature formed from all three: a slow corridor.

You can walk along the concrete and gravel without feeling constrained, but you can’t range far and wide as in an Olmsted park. The line allows you to move through the city with purpose as well as contemplation, enjoying the visual backdrop of the city while playing a role in its vitality. Other New York examples of the slow corridor are the Battery Park City esplanades, Dag Hammarskjöld plaza near the United Nations, and Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn.

[photo credit: Jenna Park via Sweet Fine Day]

These spaces thrive on their integration with the city, and the High Line will need more connections to buildings and streets. Amenities like cafés and bathrooms are wonderful, but if complicated easement agreements and litigation fears limit the number of doors and stairwells feeding the park, then it will underachieve. Traipsing back and forth along the line, burrowing sideways and occasionally touching down on the sidewalk could become the West Side paseo, playfully subverting the sort of multilevel urbanism prescribed by architects and engineers in earlier decades.

Industrial Rehab
I grew up spending chunks of the summer in Seattle, where I used to clamber over the technicolor pipework in Richard Haag’s Gas Works Park (opened in 1975). I had no idea of the park’s radical significance to landscape design and cultural urbanism; to a child’s mind it simply seemed logical that a disused gas plant should become a jungle gym. The High Line’s great achievement is coaxing, from über-realist New Yorkers, a similarly obvious conclusion about a similarly underused steel contraption: “Why shouldn’t we be walking around up there?”

This is happening not just in big cities. In Santa Fe, the railyards abandoned by the city's namesake railroad have been converted into a new district featuring parks, galleries, stores and a commuter rail station. Walking around it under the desert sun, one still appreciates the sprawl of what was. Skewed building alignments dictated by steel brachiations echo the time when the world came and went on the rails shooting straight and flat into the distance.

[photo credit: Jenna Park via Sweet Fine Day]

Another industrial rehab is Concrete Plant Park, which has preserved a gang of silos and hoppers formerly used to make concrete mixes. Painted a dusky red, they stand high above lush new grass, trees and reclaimed salt marshes on spindly steel legs. You haven’t heard of this recently opened park because it sits in the far less observed environs of the South Bronx (at the Whitlock Avenue station on the number 6 line, if curiosity moves you), along the nascent Bronx River Greenway.

These projects, among others, have shown that infrastructure’s existence can productively outlast its original use by generating a singular sense of place. The High Line has shown that the rule can apply even in Manhattan, with its hyperactive real estate market, developer-friendly political culture and shrill public oppositionists.

Infrastructure’s long-term value, whether used or disused, is tied to a place. It is a local and material response to societal and economic challenges. Today we spend so much time immersed in the mediating environments of networked society, staring at data through monitors and at highways through windshields, that we are prone to forget infrastructure’s powerfully physical nature. Sometimes we need a remnant from the past to resurface, not as a token of an imagined Golden Age, but as a reminder that the past held other ways to move and communicate, and that the future will hold still others. 

[photo credit: Jenna Park via Sweet Fine Day]

This is the provocation embedded in Joel Sternfeld’s photos: if left to itself, the entire city would be grown over in 20 years. A shocking thought, even to New Yorkers well acquainted with ephemerality. But the recent history of deindustrialization shows that urban spaces and urban technology evolve through an ecological process of selective abandonment and renewal, with decay, not vitality, as the default. Obsolescence is a question of when, delayed only by the constant labor of repair cycles and upgrades.

Ultimately infrastructure and city building require grand experiments to progress, and some of these will be judged failures in hindsight. The timidity of our current culture leaves no room for failure, and we build almost nothing of consequence. More often we are stagnant and uninspired, led by governments that pry open the public checkbook only to rebuild, with less imagination, the aging physical investments of the past — we’ve gone from the High Line and Riverside Park to the banal viaduct that carries what’s left of the Miller Highway over Riverside South, shadowing the park below. So the sight of New Yorkers, grinning and sun-washed, atop the city’s newest park, strikes me as bittersweet. It’s a reminder that we’ve spared little of our own imagination, labor and capital to dream up our own High Line. Where are the brilliant successes and glorious failures that will make the next generations of New Yorkers grin?