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Manhattan’s High Line: I think it’s going to be OK.

I had worried. It’s only natural. The lure of dereliction, its especial beauty, is its very isolation and tragic transience. By this token, the idea of turning the secret world of Manhattan’s High Line into a linear, permanent public park could surely not succeed. But now I have walked the first, and nearest-complete, section. I am impressed and delighted. Unless it is overwhelmed by visitor numbers, this idea looks like it is going to work.

I’m from London, England, and had never seen this abandoned Depression-era elevated urban railroad in its original state. But I had seen the photographs of Joel Sternfeld, taken in 2000 and 2001, which captured the way a rail viaduct last used in 1980 was reverting to nature, native plants and trees taking root in the thin grit ballast of the trackbed. I had read about the campaign to save the High Line from demolition. I had seen the 2004 competition-winning designs by Field Operations with architects Diller Scofidio and Renfro, and these seemed idealistic and perhaps naively optimistic, though very beautiful. Could they somehow preserve the fragile wilderness character of a route threading its way above and across the streets and right through some of the buildings, of mid-town Manhattan’s west side?

Eventually the opportunity arose to see it. I and my colleague Ed Heathcote were in the European press pack arrived in town for the inauguration of the rebuilt Alice Tully hall at Lincoln Center – by architects Diller, Scofidio and Renfro. Fine, we said: but any chance of a stroll along the High Line, involving the same architects, while we were here? Levers were duly pulled, and thus came an invitation to meet Robert Hammond, co-founder with Joshua David of the Friends of the High Line, to view the works.

Our rendezvous, on a gloriously sunny but bitterly cold and windy February day, was at a point on the Westside where the High Line’s capacity to stimulate development is in full evidence. This was (to some extent still is) a meat-packing district, but art galleries, new restaurants, fancy apartments and office developments are moving in. One very upmarket development cluster by Gehry, Nouvel and Shigeru Ban is taking shape alongside the track, while the new Standard Hotel by Todd Schliemann of the Polshek Partnership straddles the track like some of the factories and warehouses it was built to serve. With views of the Hudson right down to the Statue of Liberty, it’s a wonder the area hasn’t been exploited sooner. The subway system, however, does not run down this side, while the High Line itself never carried passengers: this was not a district many ventured into, and it is some way off the tourist trail still.

What’s left – following the demolition of sections in the 1960s and 1990s – is a stretch nearly one and a half miles long, its usefully over-engineered deck covering 6.7 acres. The first section of this, from its southern terminus at Gansevoort Street up to West 20th Street, is furthest on and is due to open in May.

The eventual feel of the thing is now coming into focus. The meandering granite footpath with its “combs” where it dovetails into the landscape. Seating of various kinds, some peeling up from the path, others – like a section containing permanent timber sun-loungers – attached to it. Various viewing points including a sunken ampitheatre hanging right over the junction of 10th Avenue and 17th Street – part of the “10th Avenue Square” at a node point of the line.

Then there is the reinstatement of key lengths of original rail track and junction points – all carefully tagged and their exact positions recorded using GPS, says Hammond. The rails are however set on slabs of timber rather than salvaged wooden sleepers – seemingly because the wood-preservative routinely used in sleepers is something of a disincentive to plant life. You wouldn’t know it, to judge by the way wildlife habitually and joyfully reclaims abandoned railtracks – but with a very extensive planting programme in operation, better safe than sorry, perhaps.

Soil depth is increased at strategic points – by sinking tree planters into the depth of the girder structure, or building subtly raised areas by means of Cor-ten retaining strips (the same oxidizing steel that railway lines are made of). Much of the planting has now been done and although at this time of year there is not much to see, it should quickly fill out. For me, the most impressive part was the cunningly planted scrub bursting through the rail tracks at one point. Elsewhere, artist Spencer Finch is working on replacing lost glazing in a one-time Nabisco factory (now the Chelsea Market building) through which the line runs, the colour of the glazing taken from studies of the colours of the Hudson. And since we’re talking art, the southern terminus of the High Line is currently overlooked by a derelict grafitti-daubed building that is earmarked to be the new Whitney Museum, designed by Renzo Piano.

Whether or not that happens, the appeal of this project is less in the posh new neighbours than in the details of survival of a particular industrial aesthetic, its functionalism tempered only by some basic pattern-making in the bridge balustrades. These have been subtly brought up to today’s standards, while LED lighting – in many places concealed in handrails – is augmented by some very slender waist-high steel lighting stanchions. My only criticism is that some of the new details – though clearly very strong – are perhaps just a bit too elegant. The High Line, being built for goods trains only, was never sophisticated. It was and is boilerplate engineering for heavy freight cars laden with everything from grain and steel to animal carcasses. Beauty was not part of the brief, but has somehow accrued over time, and through neglect. Ricardo Scofidio has called it “the melancholic, unruly beauty of this postindustrial ruin.”

It’s a testament to the designers that you hardly notice the ingenuity they have gone to in order to make the whole thing seem artless. My walk along the High Line, with the utterly different perspective on Manhattan that it affords, was a joy. But then, to some extent we were re-creating the original experience in that there were only three of us up there. Even the builders seemed to have finished early for the day, leaving the site deserted. So we could enjoy the luxury of relative solitude and otherness. Once it opens to all, on fine days there is bound to be a jostling crowd up there. In fact, to justify the public outlay, there needs to be. Money still needs to be raised, of course – their “Grassroots Campaign” (see link below) deserves your support.

Best thing about the High Line? That you would never invent such a promenade from scratch for this purpose. Part park, part urban boardwalk, part gazebo, part property stimulus, part collective memory – this is not an instrument that anyone would build, were its structure not already there. This is industrial archaeology in the service of the people. Originally prosaic, it has acquired touches of the sublime.


Friends of the High Line:

Words and progress photos © Hugh Pearman. Photo of High Line in its wild state © Joel Sternfeld. Thanks to Robert Hammond and Friends of the High Line for letting us walk the line.