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the rail yards

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: Westyard Distribution Center

The Westyard Distribution Center

The Westyard Distribution Center

As part of my ongoing lectures and talks about the High Line I’ve been digging deeper into the history of many distinctive buildings near the old viaduct-turned-park. “What’s That Building?”— a guide to architecture in the High Line’s viewscape —  is a popular feature on this blog, and today I’m launching a new series of slightly longer pieces about selected buildings that will let me share their fascinating histories and at the same provide a new context for understanding them in relation to the High Line.  I’m starting with the Westyard Distribution Center, a mammoth structure on Tenth Avenue between 31st – 33rd Streets. [Click here for the full series.]

The Westyard Distribution Center was completed in 1970 and is considered a significant example of the architectural style Brutalism, which is defined by the use of rough materials like textured concrete and brick, and sharp, geometrical angles. When it opened, the Westyard had the only indoor, year-round ice rink in New York City (it closed years ago and today the cool kids skate at Chelsea Piers a few blocks south). It was built as a distribution center, and has 38 loading docks for trucks; today it’s home to a number of news companies including the Associated Press, New York Daily News, and WNET-TV, which explains all the satellite dishes on the roof. It is also known as Manhattan West.

To fully appreciate this building you need to approach it more like a piece of sculpture than a piece of architecture, which means moving around and seeing it from every possible angle. The photo below shows the Westyard from Seventh Avenue — almost half a mile away. It’s a lousy shot because the light was bad and I was about to be hit by a car when I took it, but it shows how this massive, imposing building just elbows itself onto 31st Street, like it owns the place. It’s the architectural version of the pushy, aggressive, New Yorker:

The Westyard from 7th Avenue

The Westyard from 7th Avenue

I think this is a building that no one really loves in Manhattan except, perhaps, those of us who love trains and the city’s long, pioneering railroad history. The Westyard Distribution Center offers the perfect perch from which to contemplate both the past and present.  But first, you have to leave the street and get a bit higher….

Looking east from the roof of the Ohm apt. building at 30th Street

Looking east from the roof of the Ohm apt. building at 30th Street

Looking down on the Westyard you start to see how the building functions; how it straddles the train tracks that are used by three major railroads in New York City: the MTA’s Long Island Railroad (LIRR); New Jersey Transit’s commuter line; and Amtrak, the ultimate successor (after many bankruptcies, buyouts, and combinations) of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s New York Central Railroad.

If you go up even higher — I took the photo below from the observation deck of the Empire State Building — you can see a train motoring underneath the Westyard en route to the Rail Yards. And you also see the High Line looping around the Rail Yards, half green and half concrete.

Westyard Distribution Center looking West

Looking west from the observation deck of the Empire State Building

Back at street level, if you were to sneak into a parking lot nearby and stick your camera through a hole in the fence (I swear I didn’t cut that chain link!), what you would see is a very active railroad passage:

East side of the Westyard Distr. Center, looking down

East side of the Westyard Distr. Center, looking down

When you get up high again and look down onto the stub yard (called “stub” because it has no egress) what you see are trains from the LIRR that are parked there during the day. These trains came from Queens and Long Island to Penn Station, where they disgorged their passengers who then dispersed themselves around the city to do its business. The trains then motored a bit further west, under the Westyard, to the parking lot. When the commuters are done, at the end of the day, the trains return to Penn Station and take the now-tired commuters home to their families.

LIRR "stub yard," looking north from Ohm Bldg.

LIRR “stub yard,” looking north from Ohm Bldg.

Basically the stub yard is a giant railroad parking lot, and soon it will be covered with a deck and turned into a small city of office buildings, residences, and park spaces. It has a fancy new name, The Hudson Yards, and its own special tax structure. Soon the trains will be invisible, but the activity of the rail yard will go on as always underneath the new development.

The New Jersey Transit commuter trains make a right turn and head north, underground, somewhere below the Westyard building, which was designed to connect with the Lincoln Tunnel. Those trains then pass under the Hudson River to New Jersey.  Amtrak’s Albany and Canada-bound trains also pass under the Westyard, take a right and head north, but they follow the path of the old New York Central line up the coastline along the Hudson, which I roughly traced in a red line on this map:

Amtrak on the old New York Central tracks. Icons denote "cuts" in the street

Amtrak on the old New York Central tracks. Icons denote “cuts” in the street. [Click to enlarge]

Those places I marked with little train icons show the cuts in the street where you can see still the train tracks, like this one, at 60th Street…

Amtrak cut at 60th Street near 11th Avenue

Amtrak cut at 60th Street near 11th Avenue

Sometimes you can actually see a train coming through one of the cuts, which can be found between 43rd – 46th; 48th – 49th; and 60th Streets. [Note: it helps to have the Amtrak app on your phone so you know when to expect one.] The train in the photo below is Amtrak #290, the Ethan Allen, from Albany to New York, scheduled to arrive at 1:50 PM. It was on time; I took this shot at about 1:48 at 38th Street between Tenth & Eleventh Avenues. It’s not a great photo, but it does give you a sense of the geography: there, on the right side in the background, is the tall Ohm apartment building at Eleventh & 30th Street, where I took the aerial shots that appear in this piece:

Amtrak's Ethan Allen passing through the 38th St. Cut

Amtrak’s Ethan Allen from Albany, passing through the 38th St. Cut

This aerial, 360-degree tour shows how the Westyard Distribution Center is the beating heart of the railroad on the West Side of Manhattan. This gives it a direct relationship to the High Line, though it’s not so easy to discern from the park (or, for that matter, from the street). In time, all visible traces of the rail lines will be covered, including the cuts I’ve mapped out above, which are fine reminders of our city’s magnificent railroad history. (Visit while you can…) Still, just knowing the tracks are there will always let me feel a connection to the past, and permit a deeper understanding of the neighborhood in which I live. All those passengers on all those trains — the LIRR, NJ Transit and Amtrak — will continue to pass under the Westyard; soon there will be a new Seventh Avenue subway station on Eleventh Avenue that will bring more trains — and people — to our increasingly crowded neighborhood. And of course there’s the still-expanding, former freight railroad, the High Line, which connects and brings to life so much of this history.

So next time you’re walking in the park, tip your hat to the Westyard. It may not be our most beautiful neighbor, but it has a story that few can beat.


On the wild High Line’s Tenth Avenue Spur at 30th Street, looking east


[Click here to read the second piece in the series, about the former R.C. Williams warehouse, today’s Avenues School and here to find all the pieces in the High Line Architecture series.]

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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.