Jun 12, 2024, 06:27AM

The High Line at Fifteen

Don’t go to the High Line today and expect the wide-open vistas I saw in 2009. There are glimpses of the Hudson River and of 10th Ave., but much of the time it’ll be like walking in a glass canyon.

Highline title.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

High Line Park, the elevated rail-to-trail on an abandoned rail line in the West Village and Chelsea, celebrates its 15th year, as its original section between Gansevoort and W. 20th St. opened in June 2009. As one of my first projects following heart surgery, I explored the park that month. In the following decade and a half, five more sections have opened, including a new ramp that leads to 9th Ave. across from the new Moynihan Amtrak station amid the hulking Hudson Yards development.

In the High Line’s early days, Chelsea still pretended to have a middle class: mom and pop stores, gas stations, and affordable lunchrooms could be found along 10th Ave., along which the High Line runs. Today, many adjoining properties were condemned and “starchitects” have built fanciful creations along the park; and while the High Line’s original parkgoers were curious New Yorkers, today tourists make up much of the park’s users.

In the early-1930s twin iron trestles were bruited through the area, one carrying a railroad linking various businesses in the area, the West Side Freight Railroad, and the other, the Miller Highway, carrying auto traffic along the far west side of the island, freeing the north-south avenues from choking car traffic and exhaust. The plan worked well for nearly 50 years; but as manufacturers and meatpackers gradually began to leave the far west side, the freight railroad carried less and less customers until, finally, the railroad ended its run in 1980. The Miller Highway, called the West Side Highway by all its users, fell victim to neglect—it was never maintained or even had a paint job, until the road began to collapse in the early-1970s. It was finally razed in the 1980s, replaced by what is now called the Joe Di Maggio Parkway, a busy at-grade roadway (the massive, ambitious Westway project, proposed in the 1970s, would’ve placed the roadway underground and surfaced it with a park; it too fell victim to community opposition).

In 1999 a not-for-profit organization called Friends of the High Line formed with the mission of preserving the High Line and converting it to recreational space. FOHL’s community work, support of friends in high places, and diligent fundraising are too involved to enumerate here—_I’ll let them do it themselves on their website—and while it took two decades, the High Line finally opened. I’d thought it might make a convenient way to extend the #7 Flushing subway line to Gansevoort St., but the grade would be too steep to run trains into a tunnel; and in any case, a stipulation of the line’s former owner, CSX Railroad, was that the line would never be used for rail traffic again.

There are plants all along the park’s length with signs encouraging parkgoers to keep off. In addition, old railroad tracks that will never again see locomotives and boxcars have been restored on new ballast and concrete ties. Unfortunately, the concrete slats are of uneven heights and it’s easy to trip, or twist an ankle.

Looking west toward the Hudson River at W. 14th with the Liberty Inn, the rotting remains of a Hudson River pier, and a pleasure craft in the river. The Liberty Inn, designed by Richard R. Davis, was built in 1908 for poultry dealers, the Conron Brothers. Originally known as the Strand Hotel, it accommodated sailors from the nearby piers. When the Titanic survivors were brought to these piers, The New York Times used the hotel as a headquarters. Other uses have included a boarding house, speakeasy, night club, and restaurant. Its many alterations reflect the changes in the Gansevoort area from shipbuilding to meatpacking to night-life hot spot, and it stands out within the area as one of the few buildings still retaining its original use, that of a hotel: a hot sheets hotel, today.

The High Line cut through several buildings along its route—loading docks were built to abut the tracks within the buildings. At W. 15th, the line burrows through the National Biscuit Company—the first NBC (later known as Nabisco) complex, with one trestle leading off to the baker’s office building on the west side of 10th Ave. A 22-building complex, combining new, renovated and older buildings including Nabisco, has been combined to form the Chelsea Market retail and broadcasting complex.

As New York Magazine described the week of June 15-22, 2009, avant-garde architectural designs, mostly for hotels and condominiums but also office buildings, have begun or have already completed construction along the High Line Park length from Chelsea south to the Village, and the pace continues in 2024. Here was the then-new new black & white and blue-glassed Chelsea Modern at 459, designed by Della Valle Bernheimer LLP. It’s adjoined by Frank Gehry‘s first completed major NYC project the IAC (InterActive Corp) Building. IAC Chairman and CEO Barry Diller and wife, fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, contributed thousands to assist High Line Park, years before they funded a park of their own, Little Island, nearby at W. 13th St. and Hudson River Park.

When first opened, the High Line supplied new ways to view NYC landmarks such as London Terrace Gardens, W. 23rd east of 10th Ave., a 1930 apartment complex designed by Farrar and Watmaugh. When it opened, it had a central garden, swimming pool, solarium, gym and doormen dressed as London bobbies. Its Marine Roof was designed to look like the deck of a transatlantic liner. Some of the apartments are now co-ops.

Below, we see the Episcopalian General Theological Seminary, which occupies almost the entire block between W. 20th and W. 21st Sts. and 9th and 10th Aves. The complex contains buildings constructed between 1836 and 1900, and has a Harvard or Brooklyn College-like quadrangle. Author Clement Clarke Moore (1779-1863) donated the land on which it stands.

The project the High Line is most closely compared to is the Promenade Plantée in Paris, a much-longer (three miles) elevated trail running on top of a similarly disused railroad viaduct. Another successful rail-to-trail project was the Bronx Putnam Branch of the NY Central in Van Cortlandt Park. Chicago has the Bloomingdale Trail, a project also placed on an old el trestle. Philly also plans a High Line-type park on its old Reading line.

Don’t go to the High Line today and expect the wide-open vistas I saw in 2009. There are glimpses of the Hudson River and of 10th Ave., but much of the time it’ll be like walking in a canyon, as glassy high-rise buildings, weirdly designed in some cases, spring up on both sides. If you go in the early morning, though, you’ll find it a quick walk, unburdened by cars, bicycles and traffic lights, from the West Village all the way to your choice of the Javits Center or Moynihan Station.

—Kevin Walsh is the webmaster of the award-winning website Forgotten NY, and the author of the books Forgotten New York (HarperCollins, 2006) and also, with the Greater Astoria Historical Society, Forgotten Queens (Arcadia, 2013)


Register or Login to leave a comment