Edition number 25; dateline 30 October 2009
A high time on the High Line
I cannot recall the first time I heard about the High Line but given that I have learned 80% of everything I know from Radio 4 and most of the rest from the Talk of the Town pages of The New Yorker it is likely that one of them was the source of this little fascination. It may have been a decade ago and the story was probably a wry account of strange happenings on the mean streets of New York, an urban myth wryly reported. There was no disputing that the old railway line running through the Lower West Side of Manhattan existed – the thousands of tonnes of steel were there for anyone who cared to see – but the tales of a determined few making the long-disused and derelict structure a venue for parties, basketball games and extensive urban gardening seemed to belong to the same group of stories as the subterranean clubs, cinemas and theatres of Paris. Only later did I discover that these myths of New York and Paris were true.
Keeping an eye out for further details of New York’s strange elevated railway over the years, I learned of the existence of the Friends of the High Line and their campaign to preserve the structure as part of the city’s industrial heritage. Later I came across their proposals to turn the High Line into an elevated park, a fanciful scheme that would open this urban secret to the public. Later still I began to spot pictures of the deserted and overgrown tracks in magazines. Finally I recognised the basketball backboard in one of the Channel 4 idents as being a shot of the High Line. It was clearly time to investigate.
A holiday visit to New York in January 2008 (trust me, prices tumble after Christmas) provided the opportunity and with good grace The Leisure Review's own directeur sportif agreed to accompany me on a little urban investigation. Beginning with a sizeable breakfast in the warmth of the Tick Tock diner across the road from Madison Square Garden, we headed out onto the freezing streets of Chelsea in search of a disused railway. With thermometers showing minus numbers, ice all over the streets and a wind whipping off the Hudson River that you would swear could cut steel, the questions began. “What does it look like?” I did not really know. “Can we get up there once we find it?” Not unless you fancy a precarious, and no doubt illegal, climb. “What the hell are we doing?” Not easy to answer but gamely we continued. Moving carefully along the streets to make sure we were in the lee of the buildings and sheltered from this cruellest of winds, we walked west and found Tenth Avenue. A few blocks south we found what I now know to be the main stretch of the line below the western rail yards loop. Relieved that we were in the right place and that there was at least something to see, I took quick photographs (minimising the time without gloves was of primary importance) as we followed the structure down through the Meatpacking district. Safe again in the warmth of a Greenwich Village restaurant, we were able to reflect on our quest. There were some signs that work might be imminent on the structure – some scaffolding here, a few tarpaulins there – but work was not exactly in full flow and while the streets of Chelsea have their charms, they were not immediately apparent on a freezing January morning. The High Line seemed an unlikely attraction in a city with so much going on elsewhere.
With another trip scheduled for July this year, I had been excited to discover that we would find the High Line fully open and that our visit would come only a few weeks after the official opening. Hurrying down to Gansevoort Street, we found a startling transformation. What only eighteen months before had been a forbidding homage to urban dereliction had now sprouted wide staircases. The formerly deserted streets below now thronged with visitors eager to experience New York’s latest open space experience and the thermometer was showing at least thirty more degrees of Celsius than the last time we had been there. This temperature inversion might have shaped the experience but I felt something close to elation as I walked onto the deck of the High Line for the first time. That such a bizarre structure can be transformed into such a remarkable public space, that such an extraordinary vision can be realised, seemed like some kind of revelation.
Writing about the High Line in this issue of The Leisure Review, I have tried rein in my obvious delight at what the project has delivered but it was a struggle. It strikes me as an example of extraordinarily brave design. The feeling of the original structure and its purpose has been retained. There are uneven surfaces among the planking, space for people to sit and linger, space for making art and conversation. New York’s Time Out magazine named it as one of the coolest places in the city to enjoy the summer as long as you do not mind having your photograph taken. Fashion photo shoots regularly use the High Line as a backdrop and watching what goes on in the rooms of the Standard Hotel, which straddles the High Line at its southern end, has become something of an attraction, helping to retain a little of the sleaze for which the area was once notorious.
As we went to press the extension of the High Line seems to have been secured with the City of New York taking ownership of the structure as it runs through the western rail yards. This secures the High Line all the way from 12th Street up to 34th, meaning that in the near future we should be able to walk from the western edges of Greenwich Village all the way up to the Empire State Building without having to cross the road. In a city where they take their ‘Don’t walk’ signs seriously, this could be the biggest attraction of all.
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