I’ve been strolling on the railroad … The High Line

On July 4, 1976, I sat on a crumbling pier near Wall Street and watched the Tall Ships sail on the Hudson River for our American Bicentennial. Behind me stood the Twin Towers, and all around was sand and dirt and wire fencing for the new landfill on which Battery Park City was about to be built. From our picnic spot, my friends and I could see the dilapidated West Side Highway, and although we didn’t know what it was, we could also make out an elevated structure that seemed to snake through the warehouse district between us and Canal Street. That neighborhood, home to printing companies, meatpackers, dairy distributors, and prostitutes, had just been christened  TriBeCa: Triangle Below Canal Street. Cutting edge venues like Artists Space were beginning to populate streets that at night were pretty desolate, and not entirely safe.

The High Line in 2000. Photos by Joel Sternfeld, now on view at the High Line


Soon, the West Side Highway began to collapse, was demolished, and for many years we thought we’d get a superhighway, blocking our access to the waterfront. The High Line grew weeds and broken glass.

Had you told me then that in 35 years I’d be walking along an imaginatively designed and landscaped “park in the sky,” looking down over glass-walled condos, hip cafes, and a boutique featuring the fashions of Beatle Paul McCartney’s daughter, I’d have stared incredulously. Had you told me that the Manhattan shore of the Hudson would become a network of waterfront parks, with a bicycle path extending from the Battery to the George Washington Bridge, I’d have laughed at you.

The High Line is now a mile long. Photo from the High Line website.

But it is New York, 2011, and these gifts have been given to us who make a home here, and to our many thousands of visitors. They have been made possible by 35 years of individual and community activism, political dueling, and creative energy. Despite an economic recession, we enjoy a city that is clean, safe, peacefully diverse, and friendly. We enjoy a vibrant urban landscape, busy streets and and public spaces where residents and visitors celebrate “community.” We enjoy the High Line.

I tell my guests that the High Line is the best park in New York City, and the most imaginative public space created here in my lifetime. My guests visit the High Line and invariably agree.

Gansevoort, in the High Line's heyday. Photo from the High Line website.

This is already a long post, and it’s turned into a mini-chronicle of the modern West Side of Manhattan through the eyes of an urban architect and lay historian. I haven’t told you much about the High Line. I’ll do that in another post, but in the meantime, read about it here, and please visit it, beginning at the south end at Gansevoort Street and Tenth Avenue. There are free guided tours every Saturday at 11am, star-gazing on Tuesdays at dusk, and many other programs. Section 2 has just opened up. Go there at any time — morning, afternoon, or evening (check the times on the website) — and just enjoy the design, the history, the views, and the great New York pastime: people-watching. And please let me know what you think.


Read my links on Battery Park City and the almost super-highway for some insight into what we PREDICTED way back then. And here a few other sites that may interest you:

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