Awakened Infrastructure: The High Line in New York
Text: Thomas Madlener
Diller Scofidio + Renfro, New York
James Corner Field Operations, New York
For almost three decades, the High Line languished like Sleeping Beauty, with even many New Yorkers unaware of the structure in their midst. This summer, an 800-metre section of it reawakened as a public park.
The elevated rail line, opened for freight trains in 1934 to relieve the dangerous street-level rail traffic along Manhattan’s West Side, ran south from 34th Street to the St. John’s Park terminal, mostly straight through city blocks. It connected factories and warehouses directly; in some cases the trains could roll right into the buildings.
In the 1950s, when traffic volume shifted increasingly from rail to roads, and industry and businesses moved out of Manhattan, the High Line saw a marked decrease in business. The southernmost section was torn out in the 1960s, and in 1980 the last train, with three freight cars full of frozen turkeys, hobbled over the rusty tracks.
Property owners along the line wanted it torn down, but no one could agree on who was to bear the cost. A few residents, however, recognized the old, now riotously weed-grown route’s potential as a peaceful idyll. In 1999 they founded Friends of the High Line with the goal of preserving the line and rededicating it as a public space. In 2002 they gained the support of the city thanks in part to a study projecting that the additional tax revenue generated by the project would more than offset its construction costs. To compensate the owners of properties below the line, a policy of air development rights was conceived, which allow increases in the standard height limits of nearby sites and which can be resold to investors.
Long concrete planks form a path over the entire length of the park. The uneven ends of the slabs merge into gravel beds or dovetail into reinstalled rails. The path meanders gently back and forth on the 10- to 20-metre-wide trace. Slight upstands on the slab edges mark the boundaries of the grass- and woodlands, making the selectively placed mini-railings seem redundant. Other beds are framed by Corten steel, which is also used in some of the accesses. In various places, prefabricated parts in the slabs interlock with wooden benches.
The long, narrow band of the park is punctuated by pre-existing features as well as newly designed elements. At one point the park is straddled by the recently built Standard Hotel by Polshek Partnership Architects, at another it splits into two levels, or dips down through the Chelsea Market. There, in a half-open tunnel, public art installations are planned. Visitors also can relax on movable wooden loungers with a view of the Hudson. A bit farther on, the trace widens on to 10th Avenue Square, where wooden risers overlook the urban hustle and bustle through large windows. These are just some of the amazing views and perspectives of the city, the river and the ever-changing district that are to be had all along the route.
In recent years the former underbelly and backstreets of Manhattan have experienced a massive push towards gentrification. Where butcher shops and businesses once held sway, hip restaurants and boutiques are taking over, such as Yohji Yamamoto’s Gansevoort Street store by Japanese architect Junya Ishigami. The park has enhanced area property values and attracted luxury real-estate investors, who like the association with famous architectural names. On 23rd Street, Neil Denari’s HL23 is just going up, four streets away from Shigeru Ban’s Metal Shutter Houses, which in turn is near Frank Gehry’s ICA Building. Between the southerly access and the Hudson, Renzo Piano’s downtown offshoot of the Whitney Museum will open in 2012. Ultimately, the private initiative that once drew ire from property owners has contributed to the area’s tremendous boom.
The whole process has born a wonderful place that seems to bring joy to stressed big-city inhabitants. Whether they be mothers out with their toddlers, senior citizens taking a stroll, tourists snapping pictures or businessmen dropping by from nearby offices, everyone here is smiling.