Academic journal article Afterimage

The High Line: Monument to Modern Ruin

Academic journal article Afterimage

The High Line: Monument to Modern Ruin

Article excerpt

"History breaks down into images, not into stories."

--Walter Benjamin, Passagenwerk

The City of New York has a new public space. The High Line is an eight-block stretch of defunct elevated train track remade into a public park that opened in June 2009. This renewed, reclaimed ruin embodies several key moments in modernity: the steam engine, the public promenade, the flaneur, the arcade, and the cinema--as articulated by Walter Benjamin. Effectively, the High Line functions as a monument to the ruins of modernity. However, as a contemporary site designed by savvy architects, the High Line is neither a simple representation of modern forms nor a replay of a nineteenth-century monument--one that claims permanence while articulating a triumph inevitably passed. Presenting a scripted urban imaginary, the High Line suspends visitors in a state of collapsed time and space organized into cinematic images--one that invites them to reflect on the collective experience of the metropolis.

The High Line runs along Manhattan's West Side near the Hudson River, currently reaching from Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District to 34th Street in Chelsea. Designed by James Corner Field Operations with Diller, Scofidio & Renfro, the track has been transformed into an elevated urban park, a sculpted path that meanders slightly through buildings along 10th Avenue. The High Line was built in the 1930s to enable efficient delivery of goods to and from industrial businesses and to prevent accidents with street-level traffic. Mail, milk, poultry, and automobiles could be loaded and unloaded directly into buildings that opened onto the track. This freight-only line was known as "The Life Line of New York." Out of use by 1980, it was abandoned until 1999, when The Friends of the High Line began campaigning to develop the elevated land into a public park.

Today, walking up the stairs to the three-story-high space, the visitor enters a magical zone. Immediately lifted from the drudgery, dinge, and chaos of the city streets, one ascends to wild landscaping, fresh views, wooden benches, strolling citizens, and buildings parting to make a path. The Standard Hotel towers over the southern stretch a magnificent relic of International Style architecture. Slits in the irregular concrete ground transition into selectively preserved stretches of train track that serve as plant beds. It is a disorienting, yet strangely harmonious blend of industrial decay and ever developing city, of nostalgia and innovation.

The landscaping is especially uncanny as grasses, flowers, and small trees fill gaps in what remains of the tracks. "Keep it wild, keep on the path" signs instruct passersby, as if the landscaping were indigenous, happenstance. The grasses and flowers look suspiciously like weeds, but perfectly arranged and tended to. This celebration of a once seamy and neglected space artfully finesses the effect of dereliction, giving way to a safely sanitized experiential pleasure. The ruin is renovated.


If one could choose a primary icon for modernity it might be the steam engine. The invention of the steam engine introduced unprecedented speed and efficiency to the movement of goods and people during the nineteenth century, thus enabling industrial capitalism--the distribution of consumer goods produced by industrialized labor and tourism. According to Marx, "the key aspects of modernity were the dramatic changes in consciousness brought about by the industrialized space and time--the 'annihilation of space by time.'" (1)

Trains of all types were a mainstay at the World's Fair exhibitions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, celebrating the spirit of technological innovation. This progression of train exhibits, including steam engines, diesel trains, and elevated subway trains, culminated in the use of monorails during the 1962 and 1964 World's Fairs. Today, a monorail is the centerpiece of Disney World's Epcot Center Future World. …

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