Field Trip: The High Line

Everyone has been extolling the virtues of New York City’s High Line since the day in opened earlier this summer.  Once again I waited for the hubbub to subside and even picked a grey and drizzly afternoon and evening for my first visit.

The idea of transforming an abandoned railway into a public promenade  is not a new one. The High Line is the second of its kind.  Leading the trend in 1996,  the Promenade Plantee was built in Paris.  A 4.5 km long elevated section of railway was converted into a park with shops, studios and a bike path built beneath it.  In 2004, it was used as a location for a long scene in one of my favorite films, ‘Before Sunset’ . Other American cities with forgotten elevated railroad sections, such as Chicago’s Bloomingdale Line (to be called the Bloomingdale Trail), have plans to revitalize them into public greenways as well.

So French!  The Promenade Plantee in Paris
So French! The Promenade Plantee in Paris

I’ve been interested in the High Line for years and had a rare opportunity to see it ‘before’.  In 2003, I also went to see the results of  ‘Designing the High Line‘ which was on display appropriately at Grand Central StationFriends of the High Line, sponsored a conceptual competition to search for ideas for the 1.5 miles of elevated track along 10th Avenue between Gansevoort Street to the south and 30th Street to the north.  The idea of the competition was to engage the public in a visual dialog of possibility.  The results that I saw (720 of them) ranged from a simple crayon drawing of flowers on grey paper to ideas encompassing everything from roller coasters to mixed residential/commercial/public use to leaving it to rot away to nothingness.

Oudolf's Plantings looking south from 20th Street
Piet Oudolf's plantings looking south from 20th Street

So with all of that in my mind, as well as knowing that Piet Oudolf (one of my design heros) had designed the plantings, I walked the first section of the High Line which is now open to the public–between Gansevoort and 20th Streets.  In the afternoon, I walked its length from 20th Street south.  That evening I walked back from Gansevoort Street north.  The High Line’s  design team has envisioned a promenade with areas for resting, viewing and activity.  It is narrow and expansive, industrial and natural, solitary and communal.  Parts of the open section aren’t totally finished, but even with the dismal weather, there were people strolling, sitting, having a cup of coffee, and experiencing New York’s newest park at a slower pace than the streets below it–so in that way it’s a huge success.

Promenade and Gathering

The plantings, more than anything evoke the railway’s abandoned history.  What I found unsettling about my walk both ways, is that there were no surprises.  It was what I expected.

Plantings and original tracks
Expanse and enclosure - industrial and natural

The details of the High Line are what make it special–benches rise up out of aggregate planks or roll on rusted rails, rusted steel (coreten?) edging is bent at 90 degrees rather than being welded, concrete planting bed edges flow both vertically and horizontally, and the lighting conceals and beckons.  It is beautifully designed.

Rolling benches
Rolling benches
Gravel and aggregate at planting edge
Gravel and aggregate at planting edge
Looking north at Frank Gehry's IAC building
Looking north at Frank Gehry's IAC building--vines not on structure yet
A similar view at night
A similar view at night
A bench and the blue tunnel
A bench and the blue tunnel

I think it’s worth visiting the High Line over an extended period of time, through the seasons to watch it mature and grow.  It’s already proved to be a destination worth exploring–even without the surprise element.

Photo credit:  Promenade Plantee via Quirky Travel all others, the author.