I started Livin’ The High Line in August of 2009. The original subtitle of the blog was “Anatomy of New York City’s coolest construction project.” For two years I documented what was taking place outside my window, beginning with men in what looked like hasmat suits painting the concrete bed of the old viaduct first yellow, then white. (You can begin at the beginning here.)
I’m fascinated by building projects and all the tools and machinery that comes with them. And I confess that I love to watch men at work. In every type of weather — through blistering sun, driving rain, snow, sleet and hail — work crews showed up to prepare the old railbed for the masses. Soon another project began, a condo whose first few months of construction were marred by a giant inflatable rat the labor union brought out in protest against management. The neighborhood got very loud; slowly the condo began to block our view of Tenth Avenue and, worse, the wonderful water towers that are housed in brick turrets on the roof of London Terrace Towers on 23rd Street. Worst of all, though, the new condo blocked the sunlight.
These twin projects say much about the High Line, the city, and how we experience both. The southern section of the park — from Gansevoort to 20th Street — has wide open plazas with dramatic, inspiring views of the Hudson River, the old piers, and the signature architecture of Manhattan, both the venerable old (the Empire State, Chrysler and Metropolitan Life Buildings) and the bold modern (Gehry’s IAC headquarters, Ban’s Metal Shutter Houses, the Chelsea Nouvel). The second section is much closer, more hemmed-in by older industrial buildings. There’s not as much light and the striking architecture seems farther in the distance. But the southern section won’t stay as it is for long, because the success of the High Line has unleashed a furor of building projects. It’s hard to believe that all those parking lots will stay that way for long. Americans love their cars, but not that much. So more buildings will go up — many are in process now — and the entire High Line, from stem to stern, will feel smaller, less sun-filled, not quite so open.
In 1856 a writer for Harper’s Monthly complained about the constant change of New York City. “New York is notoriously the largest and least loved of any of our great cities,” he wrote. “Why should it be loved as a city? It is never the same city for a dozen years together. A man born in New York forty years ago finds nothing, absolutely nothing, of the New York he knew.” I look out my window and I understand exactly what this man was talking about, but today the change takes place much faster — in a year or two, not four decades. And there is much to love about the change that’s happening around this neighborhood.
I used to visit the Cathedral of St. John the Divine with my father when I was a kid. His grandfather, C. Grant La Farge, was one of the architects who designed it in the 188o’s; his is the gloomy, brooding, heavy, Romanesque/Byzantine section. The Cathedral has always been in a state of renovation and repair, and as I wrote about in a post you can read here, going there always made my dad contemplate the unfinished nature of his own life. It reminded him that he wasn’t done yet, he was still constructing himself.
That’s part of what I see, and celebrate, about the High Line. What gives me cheer is that the people who created this park — the founders of Friends of the High Line, the architects, designers, and landscapers — got so much so right at the very beginning. Much change will happen in the coming months and years, including the completion of the park at the Hudson Rail Yards. Among its many pleasures, the High Line offers a unique perch to watch this process in real time: the constantly changing landscape of New York City. There are days when this can be a heartbreaking experience, but at least we know it was ever thus.