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Section 3

Into the Wild

For Johnny.

The genius of the High Line at the Rail Yards is that it’s two different places at once, yet each part perfectly captures the essence of this now mile-and-a-half long, exquisitely beautiful park. [As always, click an image to enlarge it.]

The High Line at the Rail Yards

The High Line at the Rail Yards

Every landscape tells a story, whether its urban, rural, or wilderness, and much of what I’ve been doing on this blog for the past five years is peel back the layers of this particular place to discover the many threads in a rich, ongoing narrative about the Far West Side of our little island. What makes a visit to the final section of the High Line so exciting is that its creators have taken the old story of the abandoned railroad and married it so seamlessly and artfully with the new story of the High Line Park.

A simple change in paving material and a gate that closes at dusk signals the transition between a “wild,” self-seeded garden and a modern park that galvanized an international movement devoted to the adaptive reuse of post-industrial places, powered by new ideas rooted in the concept of greenness and sustainability. The fact that the official opening of the High Line at the Rail Yards coincided with the People’s Climate March made the experience of being here all the more powerful. One could justifiably feel, standing in the “park in the sky” at the spot where the March ended and participants began streaming in, that you were, for just that one fleeting little moment, in the most hopeful place in the world.

It makes it all the more appropriate that a visitor’s first footsteps in the High Line at the Rail Yards pass over a little knuckle in the pavement known as “The Crossroads.” Some day in the future, when the massive Hudson Yards neighborhood is complete, The Crossroads will be the only spot in the park where you could walk in any direction of the compass. But for now, visitors are irresistibly pulled west toward the Hudson River, into a newly designed section that’s remarkable for its sense of openness and natural light.

"Make it sittable." -- William H. Whyte

Make the place sittable, William H. Whyte said

If William “Holly” Whyte were still alive he would be smiling, because in this new area the architects have conceived a whole new vocabulary for the humble act of sitting and hanging out in the city. There’s a “peel-up” bench that see-saws (and gives your calf muscles quite a workout in the process…); love seats that allow couples to engage in conversation while facing each other; a bench that doubles as a xylophone; and long tables where you can quietly work at your laptop, do some urban sketching, or enjoy a picnic with a friend.

Which gets to one of the most striking differences between the newly designed section of the Rail Yards and the rest of the park: there are lots of things to do here. Many visitors love the High Line because it was designed for promenading or just sitting quietly and watching the world go by. In the warmer months you can get a bite to eat, but essentially that’s it. It’s the Slow Park, and that’s always been part of its charm. The Rail Yards is without doubt the most beautiful part of the park, with its expansive Hudson River views and wide, sunlit plazas, and it is indeed a spectacular place for promenading and observing. But there is also much to do here, especially if you’re a kid.

A refurbished signal switch is just above the MTA's working rail yard

A refurbished signal switch is just above the MTA’s working rail yard

The Pershing Square Beams: Just for Kids

Kids now have a place of their own on the High Line, and it’s one of the few spots in New York City where adults are not allowed unless accompanied by a child. This area was created by removing a section of the original steel beams, then covering the remaining ones with a thick layer of silicone. The result is a cool space filled with nooks and crannies for investigation and romping. A periscope offer’s a kids’ eye view of the Rail Yards, and a special tube between beams allows them to have private but amplified conversations across a distance. On opening day I overheard one little boy bellow into the tube: “I love you, mommy.”

One of my young friends leaps in The Beams

One of my young friends leaps in The Beams

Best of all, The Beams allows kids to get right inside the structure of the viaduct itself and see how the whole thing was put together. The engineering seems to intrigue them; one day this week a little girl interrupted her game of leaping from beam-to-beam to exclaim to her mother: “Look, those are rivets!”

Walk the Rails, Watch the Trains

Ever since the High Line opened people have been yearning to walk on the rails. It’s one of the most natural things in the world, like whistling or humming while you work, but it’s not allowed in the park because the tracks cut through garden beds that would be damaged by heavy foot traffic. In the new section, the designers created three “Rail Walks” so visitors can stroll between the tracks or hop on a rail and walk along it. As you move along, balancing on the rails, you can gaze down at real trains as they enter and depart a working rail yard:  the commuter trains of the Long Island Railroad. Having dropped their passengers off at Penn Station a few blocks east, they proceed to the Rail Yards where they park until it’s time to make the return trip.

The Rail Walk

The Rail Walk

See the Past and Future at Once

But what takes your breath away in the new High Line at the Rail Yards is the “wild” section. What makes this such a powerful place is the fact that it has been left alone. I think this section, which wraps around the Western Rail Yards, is one of the most beautiful, inspiring places in all of New York City. An “interim walkway” now cuts through the plants, grasses and trees that spontaneously grew here after the trains stopped running in 1980. The temporary path was born of financial exigency – it was the quickest way open up the entire Rail Yards section, even though funds only existed to formally design part of it – but it offers an experience that is truly priceless. Here is a central part of the High Line’s narrative, an introduction to the real, wild garden that inspired the planting and design scheme throughout the entire park. Everywhere else on the High Line the tracks were taken out for remediation of the rail bed, including the removal of asbestos and lead paint, then replaced along with new plants that came from a nearby nursery. Here, the tracks remain in exactly the same place they were when the trains rumbled along them, surrounded by shrubs and perennials that have grown here, unseen, for decades. All around are breathtaking views: of the busy Hudson River to the west and vast, open stretches of Manhattan to the north, east and south.

In the middle of the wild section is a seating area made of long, wide timbers stacked on top of each other. The genius of this arrangement is that you can turn your back on the city and gaze out at the boat traffic and constantly shifting light along the Hudson River.

East/West facing seating steps

East/West facing seating steps

Or, you can turn your back on the river and watch a whole new city rising around the Hudson Yards, a neighborhood-in-progress that will, when it’s completed some twenty years hence, be twice the size of Rockefeller Center. If you’d like to watch a civilization in the constant act of reinventing itself, there’s no better place than here. All around you are the markers of time: shiny new buildings of the future, crisscrossed by construction cranes and men in hard hats; commuter trains keeping to their schedules, coming and going around the clock; rusty tracks from the old freight railroad, now overgrown with native and exotic plants; children of all ages playing and engaging with the place.

Pete Seeger's sloop Clearwater passes between the Rail Yards and the first section of the Palisades during the People's Climate March

Pete Seeger’s sloop Clearwater passes between the High Line at the Rail Yards and the first section of the Palisades during the People’s Climate March

Time is in the landscape too, beginning with the Hudson River, carved in the last Ice Age some 20,000 years ago and used by us for the past four hundred or so as a primary force of American life, culture, commerce and art. Never content to let the river be, we’ve exerted our force on it in countless ways, and a good place to consider that is on the High Line’s new “Catwalk,” a raised path that crosses 11th Avenue. According to the Welikia Project, which collected massive troves of data on the ecology and topography of Manhattan Island before the Europeans arrived, in 1609 the Hudson River flowed just below today’s Western Rail Yards. (Marty Schnure of Maps for Good used the Welikia-Mannahatta data to create a special map for On the High Line that shows the original 1609 shoreline in relation to the entire park. Click the image of the map below to enlarge it and see the detail.)

The 1609 shoreline and the High Line. Map by Marty Schnure, created for On the High Line

The 1609 shoreline and the High Line. Map by Marty Schnure, created for On the High Line

Centuries of landfill later, we have the the High Line, Chelsea Piers, the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, the West Side Highway, and dozens of old warehouses that are home to art galleries, tech, design and media firms — including the architects of the High Line itself, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, who work in a large studio space in the Starrett-Lehigh Building.

But a look across the river takes us much, much further back in time. On the western bank of the Hudson, just across from the Rail Yards,  you can see the first segment of the Palisades, created at the end of the Triassic Period some 200 million years ago. It’s a place where ancient geology meets classic human folly:  in July 1804, Alexander Hamilton, former Secretary of the Treasury, was shot and killed here by Aaron Burr, then the Vice President of the United States. In fact, this craggy spot in the town of Weehawken was a popular dueling ground; DeWitt Clinton fought a duel here in 1802 and Oliver Hazard Perry fought one in 1818. Today, a railroad runs through it.

Hudson River, Palisades Cliffs, Weekhawken dueling grounds

Hudson River, Palisades Cliffs, Weekhawken dueling grounds

The new section of the High Line offers these and countless other points of contemplation. It’s a gift of extraordinary, timeless value. Every time you visit you will see something new against something old; it’s the ancient dance we do in New York, and there is no more beautiful, inspiring, place to bear witness to it.

The High Line at the Rail Yards, dusk on opening day

The High Line at the Rail Yards, dusk on opening day

The High Line at the Rail Yards, opened September 20, 2014
Plant design: Piet Oudolf
Landscape Architects: James Corner Field Operations
Architects: Diller Scofidio + Renfro
Lighting: L’Observatoire International
More information at TheHighLine.org



High Line Architecture: Morgan General Mail Facility

501 West 29th Street, standing defiant

Morgan General Mail Facility, from the Ohm apartment building, November 2012

This third piece on High Line architecture focuses on the Morgan General Mail Facility on Tenth Avenue between 28th and 30th Streets. Of the buildings I’ve covered so far in this series (the Westyard Distribution Center next door and the former R.C. Williams warehouse a few blocks south) the Morgan has the oldest and richest back-story. Spanning three centuries, from the 1860s to the second decade of the 21st century, this massive structure and the land it sits on offer up many threads in the history and culture of New York City.

The photo above, taken from the roof of the Ohm apartment building on Eleventh Avenue, reveals much of modern story. Completed in 1933, the Morgan was built with funds and labor from the New Deal’s WPA program. It was designed to connect with the High Line and create a seamless path for the more than 8,000 mail trains that crossed the country each year on an intricate network of rail lines before ultimately proceeding south alongside the Hudson River on tracks of the New York Central Railroad into Manhattan. The last 30 feet or so of their journey took them across Tenth Avenue on a specially constructed spur that led directly into the postal facility. My photo was taken hours after the first snowfall of 2012, and you can easily see the rails on the abandoned spur and the bricked-up siding where the trains once entered the building.  The photo below is from the West Side Improvement Brochure and shows the Morgan in the year it was built. Look closely and you can see a locomotive motoring through the siding (as always, click a photo to enlarge it). [continue reading…]


The High Line: Past, Present and Future


Here’s a picture that’s worth a thousand words: the High Line past (rusty old viaduct); present (restored railing with its modern light fixture on top); and future (one set of pipe-rails painted and signs of construction all around).  The northern end of the park is a flurry of activity, both on the High Line and on the streets below.  But the fading sunlight still manages to find its way between all the new buildings that are rising faster than seems possible, with their giant cranes constantly circling overhead. You just have to be there at the precise moment to snap your shutter before it’s gone.


The Future of the High Line: All of Us Invited

The High Line we know today — the beautiful “park in the sky — had its beginnings in a community board meeting that took place back in 1999. It was a classically hot, humid August evening in New York and for some reason Joshua David and Robert Hammond both decided that rather than hang out at the beach with a nice cold beer they would attend a meeting about the rusty old elevated railroad that ran up Tenth Avenue. And because they did, and because they met each other at that meeting, we have the High Line.

After I read David & Hammond’s new book High Line, which recounts the long, complex, but always-colorful fight their group Friends of the High Line engaged to save the old trestle, I began to feel that eery sensation you get when you understand that one tiny, seemingly insignificant decision had an invaluable consequence. Tomorrow evening we all have the opportunity to attend a community board meeting about the future of the High Line, and I wouldn’t miss it for anything, even tickets to “The Book of Mormon.”

Hammond will give an update on the still-undeveloped section of the High Line that runs between 30th and 34th Streets, around a working rail yard. (This yard serves as a parking lot for commuter trains that come from New Jersey to Penn Station every day, and is where they cool their jets as the workers are toiling away in Gotham. At the end of the day commuters hop on the train to return home.)  As this section heads west it majestically presents the Hudson River and it’s one of the most breathtaking, inspiring views the High Line has to offer.

Friends of the High Line is hosting this meeting to begin the process of gathering feedback from the community as the group moves forward with the design process of the third and final section of the park. Members of the design team of James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro will be attending, and the community is invited to ask questions.

I wish I could say I had been present at the creation; that on that hot August day I too had schlepped down to Penn South, a coop on Ninth Avenue for moderate-income residents sponsored in the 1950s by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. But tomorrow brings another chance to play a role in this important project. Even if you’re tired and over-stimulated, go for the photos alone; I saw many of them at a talk Hammond gave in October and they’re gorgeous.

Here are the details:

High Line at the Rail Yards Community Input Meeting
Tuesday, December 6
6:30 – 8:00 PM
Public School 11 Auditorium
320 West 21st Street, between 8th and 9th Avenues

You can watch a short video here.


The much-anticipated opening of Section Two of the High Line will take place soon, sometime during June. The 9th would have special special resonance because it’s the second anniversary of the park’s opening in 2009. The 8th would get a jump on that day. But beyond guessing at the opening date what’s interesting to me is the question: how will our experience of the High Line change?

Here are a few early answers:

1. The new section of the High Line runs through a neighborhood that’s much more residential than the southern section. Visitors to the park will have views into the apartments and lofts of people who live along the old viaduct and call it home. How will this change the experience of walking through the park, both by day and by night? It’s unlikely that anyone who lives in view of the park will put on the kind of show that guests to the Standard Hotel do, but who knows. In any case, there’s no doubt that the northern section will create a new sense of intimacy between visitor and resident.

2. The lawn between 22nd – 23rd Streets will offer a whole new way to experience the High Line: while lying down. There are plenty of places to sit and enjoy the park in the first section, including the popular lounge chairs in the sun-deck area and the ubiquitous “peel-up” benches, but a lawn invites us to stop and relax in an entirely different way. People will bring a book, a beach towel, a picnic; they’ll come to the High Line for an afternoon of rest and sun, not just a lovely walk. The “slow park” may get even slower.

3. Just as section one gave us a whole new way to experience Manhattan — from a unique perch of 30 feet above street level — so will the second section open up still-new vistas. One example: we’ll get an expansive view of 23rd Street, a boulevard that’s steeped in history. In the late 19th century it was the center of New York’s theatre district. It’s still home to the storied Chelsea Hotel where Mark Twain lived when it was the tallest building in New York City. Longer ago, when the Hudson River ran up what’s now 10th Avenue (under modern the High Line park) 23rd Street was part of a grand estate of fields and apple orchards that belonged to Clement Clarke Moore, author of A Visit From St. Nicholas.

Section one is steeped in its own history: the original Gansevoort farmer’s market, the birth of the technology of refrigeration, the old piers that supported what was at one point the largest port in the country. Section two offers a whole new chapter of New York history, with a wonderful diversity of manufacturing that includes everything from books and elevators to the foil that keeps cigarettes fresh in their packages.

4. The High Line will no longer be part park, part construction project, which means I’ll have to change the tagline of my blog. Even more, all that anticipation — the endless months of drumroll — will be over.  All that’s left will be a simple walk in the park.

But not for me. I’m getting ready for section 3….