New York City’s High Line – Elevating Urban Renewal

New York City's High Line
The High Line — image courtesy of Friends of the High Line Flickr Pool

Thirty feet up.

That’s how you see the West Side of Manhattan when you walk the High Line, from its 30-foot elevation as a former freight rail line for the Meatpacking District.

It’s not necessarily better than seeing the city at street level, or from the top of the Empire State Building, or from a boat on the Hudson. It’s just different.

Which is one reason why I love the High Line so much. It offers a new way to experience New York City.

The High Line is like the Holy Grail of rail-trails (except it’s pedestrian only). Its steel and concrete structure features a walkway heavily landscaped with native shrubs, grasses and trees. The original elevated railroad tracks from the 1930s can be seen either embedded in the path or off to the side, shaded among planted trees.

New York City's High Line
Original rail lines embedded in the High Line’s walkway — image courtesy of Friends of the High Line Flickr Pool

Minimalist concrete and wooden benches are scattered along the way, and so are modern chaise longue chairs. Sculptures and art installations abound. All of the High Line’s elements and landscaping are beautifully lit in the evening.

The public park’s hours in the fall are 7am to 10pm daily.

Manhattan takes on new dimensions from the High Line’s elevated perch – you notice more of the grid layout of the West Side streets below. The Hudson River, which the High Line parallels, appears both closer and farther away like a rangy companion.

You intersect more with high-rise living. The High Line takes you underneath some buildings like the infamous Standard Hotel on 13th Street. It leads you past high-end condos, whose residents have carped about the crowds of walkers and gawkers intruding on their aeries.

Wealthy boo-hooers aside, the High Line has become enormously popular since its first section opened in June 2009, running from Gansevoort Street to West 20th Street. Two years later, section two opened to the public, extending the High Line from West 20th Street to West 30th.

The park will soon expand a third time, to West 34th Street, after CSX Transportation Inc. decided in 2012 to donate that disused section of railway to the city.

New York City's High Line
Benches and chaise longue chairs line the High Line as it passes under a building — image courtesy of Friends of the High Line Flickr Pool

I think I first experienced the High Line in 2010. When I visited New York City for the first time in three years just a month ago, I didn’t have time to see it. This past weekend, I did, when I returned to Manhattan to attend The New Yorker Festival and to reunite with several friends from far-flung places.

A small group of us walked the High Line that Sunday, on a warm and sunny afternoon. It was jammed.

No, it was mobbed.

The crowds prevented me from taking useful photographs of the High Line, so I’m grateful to the City of New York and to the Friends of the High Line Flickr Pool for providing the images.

Walking slowly among the throngs, I worried that The High Line will suffer from too much love. But the park has a powerful steward – Friends of the High Line play a major role in maintaining it and help raise the private funds that cover more than 90% of its operating costs.

It’s no surprise that The High Line has won multiple awards including for general design, landscape design, environmentally friendly reuse, and lighting.

New York City's High Line
A sculpture on the High Line by Ruby Neri: “Before a Framework” — image courtesy of Friends of the High Line Flickr Pool

On September 30th, High Line Co-Founders  Joshua David and Robert Hammond were in Washington, DC to receive the National Building Museum’s 15th Vincent Scully Prize “for their work in creating one of the most successful urban revitalization projects to date.”

The award recognized The High Line as an “international model” that helped spur the infusion of over $2 billion in investment in Manhattan’s West Side neighborhood.

The High Line has set a high bar. Let’s hope it inspires more cities to find the means to do cool things with abandoned spaces.