Oculus Book Review – High Line: The Inside Story of New York City’s Park in the Sky

High Line: The Inside Story of New York City’s Park in the Sky
By Joshua David and Robert Hammond
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011

“Corner of the Sky” was once a song solely associated with the Broadway musical “Pippin.” Not anymore. Now it is synonymous with the experience of walking the High Line – which is every bit as theatrical. Home to more than 200 species of grasses, wildflowers, shrubs, and trees, the raised rail tracks that once carried a cargo train known as the Lifeline of New York has become a beautiful respite above the fray. This is reflected not just in the beauty and serenity of the place, but by the different ways that people behave: there is actual strolling; looking up from a handheld device long enough to take in the sky or comment upon the architecture of a neighboring building; hand holding with an occasional kiss; children running on the stadium-style seating risers without parents chasing after them. The first few times I observed this it seemed unreal, like a stage set. I thought I was watching the opening scene of Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George.”

The style of this book reflects that open space sensibility. While the details of the High Line story are far from a relaxing stroll along New York City’s park in the sky, the dialogue format between the two impresarios Joshua David and Robert Hammond makes for a very accessible and in-depth exchange. Their shared experience and sometime differing perspectives are candid and not veiled by hindsight. [editor’s note: check out David’s “Oculus Quick Take” podcast interview with Miguel Baltierra, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP, here].

David and Hammond’s co-authored account describes their initial encounter at a community board meeting where flirtation morphed into obsession, not of each other but of the object of their mutual affection – saving a 70-year-old elevated railroad track. As with many of the improbable victories in New York’s history, with exemplars like Jane Jacobs and those who fought to save Grand Central Terminal, challenges are often met and won by those who did not understand the complexity of what they were initially getting into. If they did, they probably would not have entertained it in the first place, and certainly not persevered.

Lucky for us David and Hammond are two such people. In 1999, they formed Friends of the High Line and, for a decade, pushed against opposition groups, politicians advocating demolition, development problems, the economic downturn, and the aftermath of 9/11. This was the beginning of what ultimately became the innovative transformation of an urban ruin into an ecologically creative and socially vibrant public space.

The lush and evocative images in the book are a reminder that a walk along the High Line is a wonderful way to re-experience the joie de vivre of New York. Even on a very hot and muggy Saturday in August, the tempered and more relaxed behavior was still present and oh so very real.