The High Line is Real


The High Line

Fran Leadon

On July 9 I went for a stroll on the High Line, from West 16th Street to Gansevoort Street. It was crowded on a sunny Thursday afternoon, and the people seemed to be divided into two groups: those who lounged casually about, reading or chatting as if the High Line had always been there, and those who seemed, like me, to be in a daze with dumbfounded expressions thinking, “I’m on the High Line. I’m actually on the High Line.” The long-awaited linear park has finally come to pass.

In preparing the new edition of the AIA Guide to New York City (Oxford University Press, 2010), Norval White, FAIA, and I have eagerly anticipated the completion of new projects (Atelier Jean Nouvel and Beyer Blinder Belle Architects and Planners’ 100 Eleventh Avenue, Morphosis Architects’ Arthur Nerken School of Engineering at Cooper Union), but perhaps none so much as the High Line. I remember first seeing the High Line in the early 1990s when I was a student at the Yale School of Architecture. Back then, both the High Line and the area around it seemed like one of Anton Furst’s stage sets from the 1989 “Batman” movie. Far West Chelsea, circa 1992, was in a kind of suspended industrial time warp: beautiful and romantic but also decaying and crime-ridden. Exploring beautiful relics like the High Line was risky. Intrepid friends would scale the elevated railroad track and report that it was sublime, covered by wildflowers, but I was too cautious to try it.

The thing the High Line always had going for it was its strength. Designed to accept the weight of two freight trains, it was highly unlikely to fall down on its own. Thankfully, the sturdy structure stayed where it was, snaking in and out of old factories and warehouses from Gansevoort Street up to 34th Street. Abandoned in 1980, photographers, artists, and urban adventurers attracted to the beautiful desolation began describing it as a 1.45-mile-long elevated meadow, and visions of a linear park began to form in earnest during the 1990s. A community group, Friends of the High Line, ultimately saved the winding trestle through ceaseless lobbying and fundraising.

When the first plans for a High Line park were unveiled, I was, admittedly, a little nervous. I feared the master plan left too little of the actual trestle. The further the design by James Corner of Field Operations with Diller Scofidio + Renfro was refined, the more cautiously optimistic I became, and as I hiked around Gansevoort Market and Chelsea during the past year, shooting photos of the High Line in construction for the Guide, the more I liked what I was seeing. As a linear park, the new High Line is meticulously thoughtful, perhaps even a bit over-designed. Many of the original rails were preserved and re-presented as artifacts, and native plant species have been arranged in beds with considerable care. The trail bed is a series of interlocking concrete strips that seem to grow and dissolve as needed, occasionally curving upward to form a bench. There are wooden lounge chairs that roll on tracks, and a plunging amphitheater where the High Line briefly widens at 17th Street.

It’s all extremely well done, but the surprising thing is that the wonder of the High Line isn’t in the design work. It’s seeing a familiar landscape (Chelsea) from a new vantage point, above, beside, and through the neighboring buildings. It remains to be seen how the delicate details will endure trampling by millions of human feet. The High Line, inevitably worn and frayed by continuous use, may find its most natural and profound beauty 10 or 20 years from now.