New York High Line

| February 1, 2012 | 1 Comment

by Carl Strona

This month your usual reporter is taking a much-deserved break, and I, her husband Carl, am subbing this month.  As a result of a short vacation to celebrate New Year’s Eve with a group of friends, this month’s topic is The High Line Park in New York City.

Since the column is supposed to be about gardening, a subject about which I know next to nothing, one could reasonably ask, why am I filling in and why a park in New York City (NYC)? The answer to the first question is that I, as an architect, am deeply interested in cities, and NYC is the most interesting city there is.  The answer to the second question is that The High Line Park is most significant bit of urban planning, world-wide, in the last decade.

The High Line, as the park is known, is a long abandoned elevated freight rail line on Manhattan’s Lower West Side that has been converted into a one and half mile long urban park. Adaptive re-use projects of this scale require farsighted imagination, years of political battling, limitless bureaucratic haggling, and, of course, tons of money to accomplish.  The imagination and focused drive came from Joshua David and Robert Hammond, a pair of young men who never gave up, and The Friends of the High Line.

The process of creating the park, as interesting and instructive as it might be, is not my concern here.  Instead, experiencing the park and what it means to the citizens and tourists of the city is my focus.

The park runs from Gansevoort Street to West 34th street and is about two thirds finished.  The view from below resembles the famous chase scene in the movie “The French Connection” with heavy steel columns and beams spanning over the streets and creating blighted quasi-industrial development at street level, just the sort of environment the gentrification crowd loves to demolish.  This is not where one expects to build a public park.  When the young visionaries first began the project, their goal was to save the elevated rail lines as significant historic relics of the city’s heritage.

New York City has an elevated Public Park that is truly unique.

When they mounted the height of the abandoned rail line, they discovered that nature had taken over, establishing a thriving ecosystem of volunteer vegetation – weeds.  To their creative minds this was a fantastic opportunity to create a place of wonder for the city, an elevated public park like no other anywhere in the world.

One reaches the park by climbing modern stairways or by elevators located at various points along its length.  The experience of ascending through the heavy structure and entering the park is truly astonishing.  One enters a different and amazing place, a series of connected spaces filled with wonderful plants and trees. The path winds along the rail bed offering places to stop and rest while viewing the city from completely unique vantage points.  The paving has been designed to recall the railroad it replaces. In some areas the original rails have been painstakingly replaced in their exact original locations. In other areas paving and planters have been designed to recall the original purpose of the structure while accenting the extensive plantings.

When I think of New York City’s parks, the images that come to mind are the expanse of Central Park, or a chance glimpse of Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in Washington Park or, perhaps, a view of the distant Statue of Liberty from Battery Park.  This park is completely different.  Here you are thirty-five feet above the city streets experiencing the urban fabric in a more intimate yet more detached way. You walk past buildings that are mere feet away looking into windows from a natural bucolic environment rather than from the hectic street. Some of the new buildings span over the park creating the experience of being simultaneously “in” the building and “in” the park.  This is a different experience from standing in Strawberry Fields trying to spot Yoko Ono in the Dakota.  In Central Park you are in the middle of a beautiful landscape and the city is over there.  In the High Line you are somehow both “in” nature yet “in” the city.

Everyone in the city seems to be in this place. Tourists and locals, probably more than are willing to admit, are taking pictures.  And what pictures there are to take.  The plantings frame distant views of the Hudson down the cross streets below; the many varieties of flowers and plants provide photo opportunities; and, of course, there are the people. They walk, run, sit, and people-watch. Young couples snuggle against the cold, alone together in the midst of many.

The effort it took to realize this marvelous park was monumental.  Beyond the planning, permitting and funding, there were the issues of construction.  The entire railroad bed, tracks and ballast had to be removed, and the structural elements refurbished and repaired. The task is not yet complete. Development of the last third of the project is pending acquisition and planning approvals. The blighted area around the Park is now in the process of being transformed with some of the world’s most innovative architects replacing decrepit buildings with upscale developments.

The most marvelous thing about The High Line is that it exists. This is adaptive re-use at its best.  Richard Louv’s book “The Last Child in the Woods” vividly shows how dependent we all are on nature and how we are systematically divorcing ourselves from the natural environment.  In San Diego and especially in Mission Hills our canyons provide a rare opportunity to integrate our hectic urban lives with the regenerative forces of nature.

There are lessons to be learned from this High Line Park residing in the midst of this most urban of urban environments.

On February 22 Helen Shafer Garcia, an art instructor and gardener and an artist and illustrator, will speak at the Mission Hills church at 4070 Jackdaw from 6 to 8 p.m.

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Category: Life Style

About the Author ()

Barbara Strona is a native Californian who grew up in the Mid-West and Los Angeles. She and her architect husband, Carl, came to San Diego in 1968 and have lived in Mission Hills since early 1971. Barbara received a Bachelor of Arts from Scripps College with a major in English, and a minor in Art. She attended UCLA graduate school and received a General Secondary Credential. She taught English in Los Angeles, Pennsylvania, and at Point Loma High School. She has been a Realtor specializing in residential sales since 1984. Her passions include her job, reading, writing, foreign languages and foreign countries, animals (feathered or furry), theatre, and her family: husband, two adult children and two grandsons.