NYC’s High Line gives you the inside track on Manhattan. On a warm autumn day, I walked two stories above the streets of New York City on The High Line. This boardwalk-and-park within the lower end of bustling Manhattan is built on a converted mid-19th century elevated freight line. This urban park is owned by the City of New York and maintained and operated by Friends of the High Line.
In its heyday, it delivered meat, produce, and dairy products to the upper floor loading docks of factories and businesses. It opened in 1934 and earned the moniker “Lifeline of New York.” Its demise by the 1960s resulted from the interstate highway system and shipment by trucks. The unused railway tracks were soon covered by a dense bed of grass and weeds.
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Two decades ago, two New Yorkers—Joshua David and Robert Hammond—rallied support in the Chelsea community to reimagine this abandoned 24-block section of Manhattan. They formed Friends of the High Line.
In 2003, the group announced an international “Ideas Competition” for innovative proposals for the High Line’s reuse: “Entries did not have to be practical or realistic. Entrants were encouraged to be bold and forward-thinking—to create visions as unique and unexpected as the High Line itself. We received ideas from 720 individuals and teams, representing 36 countries, and including ideas as wild as a giant roller coaster and a mile-long lap pool.”
Friends of the High Line
In 2004, Friends of the High Line and the City of New York partnered to select the High Line’s design team through an invited design competition. The team of James Corner Field Operations (Project Lead), Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and Piet Oudolf began design work on NYC’s High Line. In 2009, the first section of the High Line opened between Gansevoort Street and 20th Street.
Ever since I first became aware of the Friends of High Line and their crusade to save the rail trails of the abandoned above-ground system in the 1990s, I wanted to walk it, as I am also a huge fan of outdoor art venues, such as the National Gallery of Art’s outdoor sculpture garden and DC’s urban street art.
Early this chilly Sunday morning, I meander down NYC’s High Line alone. I survey the Hudson River to my left (the wind whipping up behind me to rush me along). I am surrounded by NYC’s apartments and skyscrapers. It is as if I am walking 30 feet above ground across multiple rooftops that hook together like the London rooftops in C. S. Lewis’ Narnia series. This place is indeed magical.
Orchestrating the Experience
I start my walk backward at 34th Street which is the newest section of the High Line. Listening to opera music pumped out on the outdoor speaker system, I feel like dancing across the grey planks at the Eastern Rail Yards. Immediately in front of me looms the Hudson River and the dense cityscape.
One day earlier I had been hiking the Theodore Roosevelt trail in Rock Creek Park in Washington DC. Now I am hoofing it on the above-ground boardwalk of NYC’s High Line. Both routes are very similar. I see trees, plants, and leaves turning crimson, peach, and yellow. The temperatures are crisp and I keep the collar of my jacket close to my ears for warmth. Early in the morning, the trail is sparse in terms of pedestrian traffic.
What is different is magnified. Instead of tall beech trees, I look upon skyscrapers. Instead of a century-old bridge, I see weather-worn tenement buildings. There are no dark paths hidden under a canopy of trees. The High Line is open to the city sky and caressed by the breeze coming off the Hudson River. Everywhere there are dense plantings that sprawl, twist, and break out of their containers. It is controlled chaos that mirrors the natural cycles of life and death.
Landscape Architect Piet Oudolf
This is the wild side of Manhattan, elevated 30 feet above the ground. According to High Line landscaper Piet Oudolf, an architect tells a narrative through his design: “We enter in a woodland situation and that opens up to metal and then continues into this water landscape or swamp landscape. We get the whole story from this sort of storybook and I translate that into plants. When I read a story of what I like, I get a picture in front of me and then for every part of the High Line I put together a sort of palette of plants; a sort of number of plants that could work in that character of what they have written down. It’s like a stage play and we have this play and in it needs so many people and he plays that character and the other plays that character . . .” (www.Inhabitat.com)
“I do not want to copy it, but to recreate the emotion . . .”Piet Oudolf
The inspiration for the High Line’s planting design is the self-seeded plants that grew wild for 25 years along the abandoned train tracks. There are trees, bushes, shrubs, and grasses—chosen for their hardiness and sustainability—that change their “costume” each season. Now in autumn, I glory in the vibrant burgundy and orange leaves that wave hello to me.
Avoid The Crowds
I take my time winding my way up the High Line, navigating the city dwellers enjoying their morning stroll and the tourists posing for their Instagram “I was here” photos. I am so grateful that I saw the NYC’s High Line early on the day of the New York Marathon, heard the opera music at the 34th Street train juncture, and saw the outdoor sculpture before the crowds mob it.
What is notable is how the High Line purposely choreographs moments on the walk, like a playwright ends a scene with a cliff-hanger. In his book, NYC Walks: Guide to New Architecture, author John Hill describes the High Line as basically “a kit of parts” that is broken up occasionally by “special moments.” He likens it to “pearls on a string.” What I experience on my walk are islands of tranquility linked on the fast-paced subway of New York life. The benches tucked on the side of the walker freeway allow pedestrians to exit and meditate, talk companionably or just rest alone.
Five Key Elements
The five key elements of the High Line design are simplistic—planks, benches, lighting, tracks, and plantings. It is an urban park. The walker is presented not with a forest but a cityscape of buildings—ranging from elderly brick apartment buildings to modernistic steel skyscrapers—that is throbbing and alive. It delights, as only NYC can do, with its manic pace.
NYC’s High Line celebrated its 10th anniversary of welcoming its first visitors in 2019. In June 2019, the park opened its newest section, the Spur. It provides 360-degree views of New York City. The Spur is the last section of the original rail structure to be converted into public space.
According to Mitchell Silver, NYC Parks Commissioner, NYC’s High Line “is one of the most iconic and unique parks in the world. Whether you’re a New Yorker or a visitor, this park offers so many different views and experiences. From its incredible gardens, its amazing art, and its great programming, there’s something for everyone, and the Spur complements the park wonderfully.”
“The High Line is one of the most iconic and unique parks in the world.”Mitchell Silver
The High Line Plinth is the first site dedicated solely to a rotating series of new, monumental, contemporary art commissions. There are 30+ public art projects commissioned each year, including site-specific commissions, exhibitions, performances, and video programs.
What I love about the High Line is its arts for the masses. I can have my fresh air and brisk walk plus art installations that stop me in my tracks. In Washington DC, I go to the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden to find “AMOR.” On the High Line, I see Robert Indiana’s landmark Love series with “LOVE” (English), “AMOR” (Spanish) and “AHAVA” (Hebrew). These three High Line artworks “represent three of New York’s most historic and influential dialects, celebrating immigration and lingual diversity in one of the most visited public art spaces in the city.”
I don’t know if I have one favorite place on the High Line. I’d like to see it at 2 am when only the moon lights my path. I want to come back in winter to sit on a plank bench in a snowstorm, nestle in my ski jacket, and look at the city wrapped in a white blanket. I wonder if the buildings flanking the High Line could whisper their secret stories of Manhattan’s West Side.
High Line Art Installations
I Lift My Lamp Beside The Golden Door, Dorothy Iannone, 2014/2018
Silent Agitator, Ruth Ewan, 2019. A High Line Commission
Five Conversations, Lubaina Himid, 2019
Xocomil, Vivian Suter, 2019