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From goods trains to green grass: The New York High Line

By Linnie Rawlinson for CNN
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A green ribbon a mile and a half long, twisting through the Manhattan sky? It sounds like the stuff of dreams, but Joshua David and Robert Hammond, founders of Friends of the High Line, are bringing this futuristic park and walkway to life.

Their vision of a 22-block-long, 30-feet-high green space on top of the former High Line train track has united politicians, celebrities and native New Yorkers in a campaign to save the elevated railroad and turn it into a public park.

History of the High Line

Since 1847, trains had been carrying meat, milk, raw materials and manufactured goods to and from the waterfront on the West Side of Manhattan. But the tracks ran along the streets, and the number of people killed by the trains led to 10th Avenue becoming known as "Death Avenue." In 1929, the city decided to elevate the length of track now known as the High Line to remove the trains from the roads.

The High Line was designed to run directly through the buildings along its path, so goods could be loaded and unloaded right inside the factories that lined its route. But the rise of interstate trucking in the 1950's meant that rail traffic declined, and eventually ceased altogether.

As Robert explains, "By the 60's it was barely used. The last train rolled on the High Line in 1980 carrying a caseload of frozen turkeys from the Meatpacking District during Thanksgiving."

Then nature took over. Joshua picks up the story: "After that, there were no trains and it fell silent. Gradually, seeds dropped down into the ballast and one by one they popped up through the gravel. Over the course of time they would die, decay and create organic matter and over 25 years this extraordinary natural landscape was created completely spontaneous without any human intervention."

Nature takes over

Creatures soon followed the plants, and the abandoned High Line turned into a wilderness. Adrian Benepe, New York's Parks and Recreation Commissioner, says, "There are birds and butterflies, plants and flowers. It's a reminder that even in one of the most densely developed cities in the world, nature is absolutely irrepressible."

But by the 1990's, property developers, keen to tear down the line to free up space for redevelopment, had persuaded Mayor Giuliani that the elevated railway had to go. When Chelsea residents Joshua and Robert heard that the High Line was under threat, they decided to take action themselves. Robert explains, "We realized no one was going to do anything so we decided to start this together."

In 1999, they formed Friends of the High Line, and quickly found themselves overwhelmed by the level of support they received, particularly from West Chelsea's artistic community.

Joshua explains, "The High Line goes through an area with a lot of art galleries, artists and architects. They were the first to jump on board and say, This is a great idea, we should support it."

Robert adds, "It was after 9/11 that people really got behind the project. Most people couldn't help rebuild downtown, but this was something positive they could do to make the city better."

Celebrity support

As the campaign snowballed, the High Line picked up celebrity supporters including actors Edward Norton, Kevin Bacon and Harvey Keitel, actress Glenn Close and designer Diane von Furstenberg. But the line's future was still in danger: in 2001, outgoing Mayor Giuliani signed papers committing the City to demolish the High Line.

Then, responding to the pressure from Friends of the High Line and their supporters, Mayor Bloomberg's new administration helped pull the project back from the brink of destruction. They recognized the opportunities that the High Line provided for a former industrial area, in particular its potential to address the area's shortage of parks.

Adrian Benepe explains, "We realize that this is a neighborhood which is really bereft of park space. There's really very little open space in the Middle West Side of Manhattan; every little bit of park space you can get is a great idea."

Daniel Doctoroff, Deputy Mayor of New York for Economic Development and Rebuilding, remembers how close the High Line came to being wiped out by the wrecking ball. "We were one court decision away from having it torn down," he recalls. The city overturned the decision to demolish the High Line in 2002. Over the next few years, the Friends of the High Line and the City of New York took the remaining steps needed to secure the future of the High Line as a park and began to assemble a design team to lead the project.

In April 2006, an opening ceremony led by Mayor Bloomberg and attended by Senators Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer, Friends of the High Line and their celebrity supporters, marked the start of construction of the new park.

A wild, green future

When the High Line is completed, it will run from Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District through the West Chelsea gallery neighborhood to 34th Street. Visitors will ascend by stairs or escalators and step out onto a grassy river of green.

Along its route, the High Line park includes floating ponds, sundecks and lookout spots over the Hudson River, the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty. And where the railway formerly linked industries, it will now link communities, providing residents and visitors with a public space to promenade, exercise and relax.

The design team, led by Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and horticulturist Piet Oudulf, took their inspiration for the High Line from the structure's former purpose and the wild plants which colonized it. Linear planking will hint at the removed train tracks and allow grasses to grow up between the boards, giving the park a wild, otherworldly feel reminiscent of its abandoned state.

The park's first stretch, from Gansevoort to 20th Street, is set to open to the public in 2008. Adrian Benepe is excited by how quickly the High Line project has progressed. "We're almost half way there with the first phase," he says. "We've just about completed stripping off the old paint and taking out the old railroad ballast, resurfacing it and making it waterproof again. This spring we're going to start putting in the plants and create this beautiful hanging garden up in the sky."

The vision made real

The Friends of the High Line continue to fund raise for the project, which has attracted public money and financial support from private donors, and they aim to be involved with its future management. Joshua David says, "We still have a lot of work to do." But now, even those who doubted the project initially have been won over by the vision and enthusiasm which grew from Joshua and Robert's conviction.

As Adrian Benepe says, "When it was first presented to me as commissioner I thought it was a little bit harebrained to take a whole abandoned railway up in the sky and turn it into a park. But once we got into it, it was easy to see it was a great idea."

Read an interview with Friends of the High Line founders, Joshua David and Robert Hammond >>


train crossing the High Line from a 1950s photo

The High Line carried freight to and from Manhattan's industrial districts

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