27 March 2015
Getting around New York has always been a fairly complicated process: in the 19th century, for example, there was the problem of shit. Carriages were the favorite mode of transport, and it is estimated that in 1880 there were at least 150 000 horses living in the city. Each horse produced about ten kilos of dung a day. Add it all up—the days, weeks, months—and then imagine the streets. They must have been literally carpeted with excrement, too much to be taken away continually. And then taken where? No one knew what to do, and yet people had to move around. Someone even predicted that at that rate the droppings would reach the third-story windows by 1930. In 1898 the city held a major international conference of planners to find a solution, in other words to imagine how a city could function without carriages and horses. No one could come up with one. There simply was no solution—until one arrived all by itself. It was called the internal-combustion engine. By 1912 there were more cars in New York than horses.
And yet in the 19th century, in New York, you could take the train. In 1847 a railroad was built linking the east and west coast of Manhattan. It was called the West Side Line. The tracks ran along Tenth Avenue, together with pedestrians and carriages. People were continually being run over, so that Tenth Avenue earned itself a macabre nickname: Death Avenue. “The line killed and mutilated hundreds of people,” wrote the New York Times. One person killed by a train was described by the newspaper as “shockingly mangled.” In 1894 a man who had lost a leg to the railroad lit a bonfire on the tracks in protest. In 1897 a watchman who had saved many lives over the years was himself run down and killed. Between 1898 and 1908 198 people died on the tracks, mostly schoolchildren during the dark months of winter. Then traffic declined, and with it the number of accidents, but the decision was nevertheless taken to get rid of the lethal railroad line: an elevated system was to be built to carry freight, along a slightly different route: the High Line.
At the moment Woody Allen recites the first words of Manhattan—“Chapter One. He adored New York City”—what you see is the High Line. Only a bit of it, of course.
Constructing the High Line in 1929 cost 150 million dollars; at today’s values over 2 billion, a fortune. It allowed the factories and the warehouses in the upper part of Manhattan to transfer goods to the lower part and toward the river without blocking the traffic. It worked, but not for long. After the Second World War everything in New York moved by road: people in cars, freight on trucks. The High Line was so little utilized that in 1960, just thirty years after it was built, the southern part of the railroad—roughly half—was demolished. Trains continued to run on the remaining part, but fewer and fewer, until 1980. Then nothing. At the moment Woody Allen recites the first words of Manhattan—“Chapter One. He adored New York City”—what you see is the High Line, abandoned.
Today the High Line is one of the most beautiful spots in New York, as well as one of its most popular tourist attractions: certainly the best known of the more recent ones. It is an elevated park constructed on what was once the railroad track: it is 2.3 kilometers long, you could walk its entire length in half an hour. But no one does as there are reasons to stop everywhere—to look down, to the right and the left, to sit and take things in. It starts from Gansevoort Street, in the Meatpacking District, and runs through Chelsea, passing above Chelsea Market: on one side Manhattan, on the other the Hudson River. Work on the park began in 2006 and the first section was opened in 2009, the second in 2011 and the third in 2014. There is one small piece left that will open in 2015. There are lawns and benches, there is a stretch of paving over which runs a centimeter of water that you can put your feet in. There are still some sections of track, integrated with the rest, and 210 different species of plant. In some parts the High Line is hardly wider than a footpath: anyone who goes there expecting to find something like what is normally meant by “a park” is going to be disappointed. It’s more of an elevated green snake weaving between buildings. It’s a very different place from Central Park, even though some people do go there to run. After all, this is New York: people run everywhere.
In reality, the High Line was a tourist attraction even before the opening of the park: but one of those attractions visited by just a few people in the know and not mentioned in any guidebook. How many places are there in New York that no one knows about? Not many. The High Line was one of them. In the nineties just two kinds of people went there. First New Yorkers with a spirit of adventure, to spend an afternoon doing something different or to impress the girls. An elevated railroad abandoned for decades and known to hardly anybody, in Manhattan: if someone takes you there you’re going to remember it. And then botanists. On those old railroad tracks and the land left to its own devices a very interesting flora had sprung up spontaneously over the years, wild plants resistant to drought, hardy trees like the sumac sprouting amidst the gravel.
If the High Line has become what it is today, the credit must go to Joshua David and Robert Hammond. They lived not far away, in Greenwich Village, and in 1999 were 36 and 29 years old respectively. They read in the newspaper that the mayor of New York at the time, Rudolph Giuliani, intended to have it demolished. It was not an unreasonable decision on Giuliani’s part: it made sense to get rid of a rundown and unused structure in a city bursting at the seams. But Hammond was fond of the steel structure, its rivets, its joints. “I assumed that some civic group was going to try and preserve it, and I saw that it was on the agenda for a community board meeting. I went to see what was going on, and Josh was sitting next to me. We were the only people at the meeting who were interested in saving it.” What is more, the other residents were in favor of its demolition: they feared that the abandoned line might attract criminals, the homeless or even just stray dogs and insects. The company that runs the local railroads in New York sent two representatives to the meeting, to make a couple of proposals for preserving the structure and reusing it. The residents rejected them. But David and Hammond listened and at the end of the meeting asked the representatives if they could visit the High Line. They agreed and one day the two men were allowed to enter, legally. “When we got up there, we saw a mile and a half of wildflowers in the middle of Manhattan.”
In the fall of 1999 Joshua David and Robert Hammond formed a committee, called Friends of the High Line, with the prime objective of halting the demolition. Both the organization and Giuliani’s plans grew at a fairly slow pace. Then came September 11, 2001. Hammond told National Geographic: “We thought no one would care about the High Line at that point, but the increased interest in urban planning and design with the ground zero design process paved the way for heightened interest in our project.” The approach taken by David and Hammond’s community group was not to organize protests, sit-ins and picket lines, but to present a proposal to the administration that would actually be cheaper and more lucrative than demolition. The Friends of the High Line commissioned a series of feasibility studies on the park and on the impact that it would have on the rest of the district and began to raise funds. A lot of funds. Then they held a sort of ideas competition. Could we turn the High Line into a park, they asked, and what would we want it to be like? As the National Geographic puts it: “They expected a few dozen proposals from New Yorkers. Their call brought 720 entries from 36 countries.”
One of the stories less often told about 9/11 was that New York was in the middle of an election campaign for a new mayor. Rudolph Giuliani was coming to the end of his second mandate and could not stand again, although later an attempt was made to change the rules in the name of the emergency. The date of the Democrat and Republican primaries had been fixed for that very day of September 11; the attacks obliged the parties to postpone them to the 25th. The municipal elections were held on November 6, less than two months after the most tragic event in the city’s history. In one of the most liberal and leftwing cities in America they were again won by a Republican, and what is more an extremely wealthy former Democrat: Michael Bloomberg, an entrepreneur, publisher and philanthropist—and opposed to the demolition of the High Line.
Bloomberg made a deal with the Friends of the High Line and the city decided that the High Line would be turned into a park. Under the terms of the agreement the municipality would come up with 112 of the 153 million dollars needed for the first phases of the project; another 21 million from federal and state funds and 20 million from the Friends of the High Line. The group also agreed to meet the operating costs of the park once it was open, and continued to raise funds and accept donations for this purpose. The 20 million dollars were needed to open the first section, but afterward more would be required: by the October of 2011 they had collected 85 million from private citizens and cultural institutions. Today the High Line is visited by around five million people a year: at least ten times what David and Hammond had expected, judging by the studies and plans they had commissioned
Not everyone likes the High Line. On TripAdvisor’s webpage on the High Line, where there are masses of extremely positive reviews, you can also find these:
“The High Line is best interpreted as a metaphor for Manhattan in the Bloomberg era, when it was developed. ‘Walk the straight and narrow’ is the message here. That’s so much easier when you’re absorbed in your iPhone anyhow.” “It’s an elevated road where they planted a bunch of stuff. Overcrowded, and the views aren’t much to speak of unless you enjoy watching cars.” “Heard so much about it, needed to see. Unfortunately about million other people had the same thoughts.” “There is nothing here. I mean nothing. OK… a few flowers and some shrubs but other than that… nothing. Oh, and a lot of people just walking around. Some of the views were OK but I was expecting more. Maybe some artists…some vendors…something! We walked a few blocks and then decided to do something fun. This is NYC after all—being bored is not an option!”
“Well one of us has to be honest here. If you run out of things to do in NEW YORK CITY then climb those stairs and see the ‘beautiful’ views of the same buildings and roads you just came from, but 20 feet higher!!! Wow! I mean wow! Breathtaking! You can see the same road from a slightly different angle. Wait… wait a minute… they also put a patch of grass on the rusted and extremely narrow (read: crowded and annoying) walkway. […] Whoever disagrees with this opinion is secretly upset they got suckered into going and now wants to drag you down with them.”
“Sometimes people have seemingly great ideas that turn out not so great like ‘We should change the recipe for Coca-Cola and call it Coke II’ or ‘Let’s make a new Indiana Jones movie.” Unfortunately, the High-Line park is one of those ill-fated ideas. Sounds cool, right? Turn an old elevated train track into a park. Unfortunately, the ‘park’ is just a narrow sidewalk, lined with knee-high weeds on both sides, and crowded with so many tourists you can barely move.”
The investment made by the city of New York has proved to be a good one from the economic point of view as well as from the boost it has given to tourism. The real-estate market has flourished in all the surrounding areas, with house prices rising. In addition, the High Line presents none of the usual problems associated with parks: crime, for example, is practically nonexistent. Muggings, violence, attacks: very few, in the early years none at all. At the most the odd fine for someone riding a bike where he shouldn’t, or for bringing a dog (it’s not allowed): and in any case fewer than are levied for the same reasons in Central Park. There are two reasons for this. First: the raised position in the middle of apartment buildings makes people feel they are being observed, on show. Second: you’re never alone on the High Line.
When Hammond and David were trying to sell the weird notion of turning an elevated railroad into a park, they were greatly helped by being able to point to the example of something that already existed: the Promenade Plantée in Paris, a 4.7-kilometer-long public park that runs from Boulevard Périphérique to Place de la Bastille, a few meters from the right bank of the Seine. What the Promenade Plantée in Paris was for the High Line in New York, the High Line in New York has been for the projects of several other cities. Chicago has already started work on the conversion of one of its old, abandoned elevated railroads, the Bloomingdale Line, into a park. And in 2018 Washington DC will have its own elevated park: not built on the tracks of an old railroad, but on an expressway bridge over the Anacostia River.
“Walking on the High Line is unlike any other experience in New York. You float about 25 feet above the ground, at once connected to street life and far away from it. You can sit surrounded by carefully tended plantings and take in the sun and the Hudson River views, or you can walk the line as it slices between old buildings and past striking new ones. I have walked the High Line dozens of times, and its vantage point, different from that of any street, sidewalk, or park, never ceases to surprise and delight. Not the least of the remarkable things about the High Line is the way, without streets to cross or traffic lights to wait for, ten blocks pass as quickly as two. New York is a city in which good things rarely happen easily and where good designs are often compromised, if they are built at all. The High Line is a happy exception, that rare New York situation in which a wonderful idea was not only realized but turned out better than anyone had imagined.”