Have you ever experienced butterflies in Manhattan? Or bees buzzing bergamot on busy Tenth Avenue in Chelsea? Despite a forecast of occasional showers, only fleecy cumulous flocks ranged the blue skyway above Manhattan as my wife and I strolled down the High Line, a new, elevated garden path through the post-industrial landscape of Manhattan’s West Side. It was well worth the effort and small expense.
On a Sunday afternoon in June, we found street parking in Hoboken, only several blocks from the landmark Erie Lackawanna Terminal, where we purchased roundtrip MetroCards on the PATH for $3.50 apiece. Deborah and I exited the Tubes at the 9th Street Station, near Sixth Avenue (Avenue of the Americas) and ambled the West Village, stopping occasionally to read directions from her iPhone. As we circumnavigated chatting sidewalk diners on Gansevoort Street, the tail end of the old elevated railroad finally loomed into view. A number of novelty vendors and a YOGO Frozen Yogurt truck plied their wares near the intersection of Gansevoort and Washington Streets as we climbed a stairway to the southern entrance of the High Line. Here a large banner proclaimed the location for the new Whitney museum, which broke ground on May 24, 2011.
Immediately we were impressed at the imaginative recycling of seemingly obsolete hardscape—an urban railway, not underground, but elevated thirty feet above street level, which opened in 1934 to service warehouses, factories and abattoirs on Manhattan’s gritty West Side. This meadowy skywalk takes “rails-to-trails” literally to a whole new level, celebrating the eternal processes of transformation, even amidst Gotham’s shadowed canyons, with new life sprouting from the humus of past endeavors. Every step opens an interesting perspective on where we’ve been and where we’re going.
The inspiration for this remarkable public space is captured in Joel Sternfeld’s photographic mural of billboard dimensions, measuring 25 by 70 feet, displayed at West 18th Street. Entitled A Railroad Artifact, 30th Street, May 2000, it depicts nature’s unaided reclamation of the abandoned High Line. The design honors this irresistible power of natural reversion, allowing wind-tossed drifts of grass and wildflowers to overgrow remnant stretches of the steel tracks. Along the way, meadows yield to thickets and then woodlands as the path, neatly constructed of concrete planks, meanders like a dry creek bed. A water feature opposite the Diller-Von Furstenberg Sundeck even allows weary explorers to take off their shoes and dip their toes in a bubbling spring.
This is edge habitat, where light meets life on the fringe of a windowed forest of glass, brick and steel. Public works of art, views of the Hudson River and Jersey Palisades, ample seating, LED lighting (concealed in the Art Deco railings), and a fun selection of food vendors provide endless opportunities for conversation or contemplation, for looking outward or inwardly, for exercising spirit and body, and, of course, for people watching. Numerous access points (some with elevators) tie the walkway to restaurants and other street-level attractions.
We entered at Gansevoort Street and walked north to West 34th Street. At trail’s end, while contemplating plans for Section Three, we engaged a pleasant couple from Brooklyn in conversation (who ultimately confessed to Jersey roots). Pausing on our return at the edge of the 23rd Street Lawn, we rested momentarily and shared a refreshing Hibiscus-flavored Mexican ice pop, purchased from a cart (La NewYorkina) for $4.
Credit where credit is due: neighborhood activists Joshua David and Robert Hammond organized the Friends of the High Line in 1999. Two years later, the Design Trust for Public Space awarded a fellowship grant to architect Casey Jones, who successfully envisioned preservation and reuse of this transportation relict. The winning design is a collaboration among James Corner Field Operations (Project Lead), Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and planting designer Piet Oudolf.