Magazine article American Forests

Taking Back the High Line: A Bold Plan and Big-Name Backing Are Turning an Abandoned NYC Track into a Sought-After Green Space

Magazine article American Forests

Taking Back the High Line: A Bold Plan and Big-Name Backing Are Turning an Abandoned NYC Track into a Sought-After Green Space

Article excerpt

At 27,000 acres, New York City's park system is the nation's largest yet provides access to fewer acres of green space per resident than any other major American city. Nowhere is this more daunting than in the Chelsea District on Manhattan's West Side. There, residents must contend with monolithic industrial-era warehouses and the West Side Highway, a deafening asphalt car conduit flanking the Hudson River. And above it all, the High Line--a skeletal mass of abandoned elevated steel railway looming 30 feet tall--snakes across 1.4 miles, casting a gloomy shadow over any street life venturing below.


But since 1999 a successful grassroots movement has steadily won over big money and high-level support for transforming the elevated trestle from an eyesore into a 7-acre open-space gem. Planners envision loads of pedestrian access, sections open round the clock, and pathways illuminated up to waist level to allow nighttime visitors to enjoy New York's radiant skyline while giving the High Line's surface a glowing appearance when seen from below.

This spring, work crews began tagging and removing railroad tracks, repairing the steel and concrete framework, installing new drainage, and stripping lead-based paint from the steel structure. The initial phase includes a 2.8-acre, 1.5-mile segment from Gansevoort Street to West 20th Street.

Death Avenue

It wasn't always a potential pedestrian magnet. Before the viaduct was built in 1934, 50 street-level freight trains sped along 10th Avenue daily, causing so many pedestrian fatalities that it was called Death Avenue. Horse-mounted guardians, dubbed "The 10th Ave. Cowboys," brandished lanterns, fending off trains and signaling to pedestrians for safe crossing.

After years of public outcry, New York began building the elevated trestle, a project whose total cost exceeded $2 billion in today's dollars. Private right-of-way agreements established then ran through 350 properties and demolished 640 homes, two schools, and one church. In return, what was then a 13-mile-long viaduct eliminated 105 dangerous street-level railroad crossings and carried rail cars directly inside factories and warehouses, speeding freight delivery.

However, just as the first train was embarking on its new route, the Great Depression threw manufacturing across the country into a tailspin. Rail traffic halted. High Line commerce consequently declined, spiking only during World War II when troops, weapons, and supplies flooded through for shipment overseas. Interstate trucking took over in the 1950s; in the 1960s major portions were torn down, leaving a mile-and-a-half remnant for a last load of frozen turkeys to be delivered in 1980.


Later that decade, Peter Obletz, a community activist and railroad buff who lived in a boxcar beneath the trestle between 30th and 33rd Streets, paid a token $10 for ownership rights. Adorned with art deco balustrades, the nearly 300,000-square-foot viaduct lay abandoned for 22 blocks.

Gradually, seeds that had hitched a ride on migrating birds or freight cars took root, sowing a seasonal canopy of Queen Anne's lace, purple aster, hyacinth, iris, and grasses. Between two warehouses a wild cherry tree sprouted beside a rusting railroad switch. The abandoned tracks became a nature preserve high above the chaos.

Actors Kevin Bacon and Edward Norton, two neighborhood residents and early supporters of Friends of the High Line, talked up their personal connection with the abandoned viaduct, promoting its conversion into seven acres of open space even if it was 25-27 feet above street level.

Norton, who lived in an apartment overlooking the High Line "couldn't believe it was hidden and neglected for so long" and often snuck up onto the rail bed. Kevin Bacon, no doubt inspired by his father Edmund, a former Philadelphia city planner and author of Design of Cities, called preserving the viaduct as open space "a bold and worthwhile cause in a neighborhood quickly rising as a world class magnet for arts and entertainment. …

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