I first went to New York in 2013. It was August, and it was hot, sweltering hot, and humid. When you first arrive in New York, everything seems enormous; everything seems high-in fact, very high-and everything is divided into blocks. Getting your bearings in Manhattan is easy for this reason: its streets follow a grid pattern and are divided into street, laid out horizontally, and avenues, perpendicular to them. Walking around Manhattan means finding right angles at every intersection. The feeling is a bit like constantly moving around the perimeter of something without ever being able to get into it. It is like standing in the doorway constantly, frantically waiting for someone to open it. Or at least that is what happened to me. In the end, however, an open door I found. It is located on the West Side of Manhattan and is called the High Line.
High Line: from the elevated railroad to window on Manhattan
Today, the High Line is an urban park that looms 1.45 miles into the Manhattan skyline along a former elevated rail line. This was built in the 1930s to transport goods and thus replace a street-level railroad called Death Avenue because of numerous accidents.
In 1980 the High Line fell into disuse, was abandoned, and was soon transformed into a jewel of industrial archaeology, where nature, day by day, regained its space. As one can imagine, so many interests were at play in those years between those who wanted to demolish it to build something else and those who tried to save and redevelop it. Friends of the High Line won this roiling struggle of legal battles and dreamers-visionaries, founded in 1999 by Joshua David and Robert Hammond.
In 2006, a competition was announced for the redevelopment of the facility. The project that won the contract was the one proposed by the Diller Scofidio + Renfro & Field Operations team. The project included 4 phases of intervention, corresponding to as many parts of this urban green line. The first was completed in 2009, the second in 2011, the third in 2014, and the last-the Spur-in 2019.
A greenway that is not just a green line
When I first met her, the High Line was incomplete: the third and fourth parts were missing. He was only halfway through, but he was already part of New York, of New Yorkers, and all the foreigners visiting this city daily. Why? Why so much attachment to something transient in a city as changeable as this?
I met Rick when I started asking around why New York loved the High Line so much. I spent days walking back and forth along this line capable of ripping through the West Side of Manhattan. The only one from which one could enter the city at the height of 9 meters. Rick is an architect working at the Center of Active Design at the time. We spent more than an afternoon talking about the project-he knew the studio that had developed it personally. Most importantly, he also viscerally loved the High Line.
Two recurring words stuck with me in our chats: melancholy and unruly, both referring to the poignant beauty of this abandoned railroad. From here, they set out to make what is now the High Line. The idea was to translate the legacy of this infrastructure, where nature regained its space, into an urban park. But nothing here is left to chance. For example, do you see those blades of wild grass growing between the cracks in the sidewalk? It is intentional, not accidental. It is allowed by the flooring system that leaves gaps between plates. Here, biodiversity and the anthropogenic element are free to know and integrate with each other.
Honey, walks and art
In those days I met so many people. Cheryl, a beekeeper, has four to five hives on one of the rooftops overlooking the High Line and produces what is known as New York honey. Barron comes here every day after the office. Still wearing the suit, stroll to the large, colourful mural at 25th Street. Sara and her friends often meet in the amphitheatre overlooking 17th Street. Conversely, Connie likes to relax on the lawn chairs she finds on the 14th and 15th streets.
Mark is here with his two sons, Bob and Mel, to participate in one of the many activities the Friends of The High Line organised for families. Some people come to run (although at some hours, especially on lovely weather days, there are too many people to do so), some to read a book, some to play sax or get lost in their horizon.
Because, as Adam Gopnik wrote in this article published in the New Yorker: “The High Line does not offer a God’s-eye view of the city, exactly, but something rarer, the view of a lesser angel: of a cupid in a Renaissance painting, of the putti looking down on the Nativity manger.”