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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 Quiet Park

I have left town for a week — my first vacation of the year, and much-needed — and find myself in my own garden pulling weeds. It’s very quiet here on a small mountain along the Hudson River in Columbia County. Frequently a train goes by and toots its horn. If it’s a big one — a long CSX freight train — I can even feel it rumbling through the house. “The rhythm of the rails,” as Steve Goodman wrote in “City of New Orleans.” Cue Arlo Guthrie.

As I was weeding this morning, before a thunder storm rolled in, I was thinking about that other rail bed down south, and it occurred to me that one of the most striking features of the High Line is how quiet it is. For the two years that Section Two was under construction we worried about the noise that would come from thousands of people passing by our windows.  I heard that around 35,000 walked through the park during the Gay Pride weekend.

But it’s completely, astonishingly, quiet down there.

There’s something about the High Line that not only slows people down but quiets them too. In two years I’ve never heard anyone screaming into a cellphone. Today, people who sit on the lawn seem to speak in whispers; there are buildings all around us to amplify the sound but I’ve not yet overheard a single conversation. No radios or boom boxes. Occasionally a small child shrieks in joy but that’s always a welcome interruption.

Of course it wasn’t this way when the trains were running. In 2003 a woman named Patricia Fieldsteel described in The Villager what it was like when she moved into an apartment near Gansevoort Street.

“Slightly before 2:50 a.m. the building began to quiver and shake: an unearthly shrill series of screeches, wheezings and the rattlings of Brobdingnagian chains seemed headed straight for the window by my bed. I groped for my glasses and peered out between the dusty slats of the Venetian blinds. A decrepit freight train was creeping out of the south side of the Manhattan Meat & Refrigeration Warehouse across the street. Huge refrigerated trucks were parked along Washington St., their motors running, spewing noxious fumes that were already seeping through my closed windows. Then the raw steer carcasses started to roll and the odor of blood and hacked-apart flesh mixed with the other charming aromas. The High Line was making its deliveries….”

The High Line is more connected to the city itself than any other park in New York, running as it does right through the middle of busy streets and up along the avenue. And yet it’s so startlingly quiet. It’s possible that this is the effect that great and beautiful design has on us. It’s humbling to walk through such a lovely place, particularly when you’re surrounded by reminders of a complex society, both industrial and technological, on both sides and at every step along the way. It’s a place that allows you to slow down and think.

I’m glad that the people who run the park are closing it early on days when there are massive crowds downtown. Whatever the reason, the effect is that it preserves this idea of the High Line as a place apart. It’s not a spot for partying and ballyhoo — there are tons of great places to go for that.  It’s the quiet park, and somehow — at least so far — the millions of people who pass through it every year seem to appreciate that.

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I’ve been preparing myself for the transition from construction site to park. I was basically ready to say goodbye to the good old days of guys in hard hats and welcome the throngs of tourists who are about to replace them.

But then I look out the window and what do I see? Guys in hard hats erecting a scaffold.

So something’s up, though I have no idea what.

One thing I’d like to note, in these waning days of construction-guy appreciation. Take a look at those stanchions (click on the image if you want to enlarge it). When did you ever see building materials laid out so artistically? These guys are impeccable.

Meantime, there’s a lawn to be mowed.


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….


It’s a marvelous day for a bird bath

Tonight is the big bash that Friends of the High Line is hosting to celebrate next month’s the opening of Section Two. For the past hour or so ladies and gentlemen in black tie have been parading past our little patch on 22nd – 23rd street. Ho hum. More interesting: even the birds decided to clean up their act for the big night. These little guys were having a lovely bird bath in the sun deck area.

And did I mention that it’s 7:13 and Atlantis, a child’s toy phone, is sounding in Stephen Vitiello’s exhibit A Bell For Every Minute. See here for the sound map.

Note to the Friends of the High Line: can’t you find a way to keep this wonderful exhibit in the park?


And chances are you never will. So enjoy the fantasy.


Lights, Camera….


Oh my, we have Action on the new section of the High Line.

All these years I’ve wondered what it would be like to gaze out the window and see my little patch of High Line lit up. The new section is still not open — it’ll be another few weeks — so presumably they’re testing things. Fittingly this new stage lit up against a clap of thunder (cue the dog growling) and a teeming rain. Well, it’s a marvelous night….