22 SEPTEMBER 2014
The third and final phase of Manhattan’s groundbreaking urban park-in-the-sky finally opens.
For the past few years, the buzz among urban planners, locals, and visitors alike has been about the High Line. “Have you been to the High Line?” “The High Line — have you seen it?” “You should really check out the High Line.” “I love the High Line.” High Line, High Line, High Line … Marcia, Marcia, Marcia … it seemed to be all anyone could ever talk about. But, c’mon, I thought, it’s just a park. How special can a park really be?
It turns out, pretty special.
The High Line is a 2.33-kilometer (1.45-mile) linear park built atop an old elevated freight rail line on Manhattan’s West Side. Its southern end is at Gansevoort Street near the border between the Meatpacking District and Chelsea. It runs parallel to the Hudson River waterfront for a few blocks and then continues northward, paralleling Tenth Avenue to West 30th Street. At 30th it makes a sharp turn west and wraps around the West Side Yard, a large rail yard adjacent to Penn Station where the Long Island Rail Road stores trains. The High Line’s northern end touches West 34th Street across from the Javits Center.
Those 2⅓ kilometers are filled with trees, bushes, flowers, and other plants, which in turn are abuzz with insects and alive with singing birds. Visitors wend their way along a path through and under and in between the densely-packed buildings of a former industrial district, now being turned into high-priced apartments, condominiums, offices, and incubator space for startups and entrepreneurs.
We visited for the first time shortly after we moved to New York three years ago, and I finally understood what all the buzz was about — I was a convert.
That first visit was to the first two phases of the High Line that were then open: phase 1, from Gansevoort Street to West 20th Street, which opened 8 June 2009, and phase 2, from 20th to West 30th Street, which opened 7 June 2011.
And last month, on 21 September, the highly-anticipated phase 3, which comprises the remainder of the High Line from 30th to West 34th Street, finally opened to the public. I was excited to see the completed project, so the next day, on 22 September, Colin and I went to check it out. We started at the southern end and walked through phases 1 and 2 before walking through phase 3.
If I’m honest, phase 3 was a bit of a letdown. The official line is that the northernmost section of the park retains the landscape and flora that characterized the High Line in its days as a derelict freight railway — largely, as we lay people would call them, weeds. On a bright, sunny day, it feels incredibly exposed: not only do the dense buildings below West 30th Street give way to the wide openness of the West Side Yard, the Hudson River, and the open streets around, but there are few trees in phase 3. Altogether it lacks the feeling of enclosure — like a leafy, green security blanket almost — that, for me, makes the first two phases of the park so special.
Beyond that, the platform being constructed over the West Side Yard on which the massive Hudson Yards project is being built will eventually be at the level of the High Line, which will then become a landscaped space on the perimeter of the Hudson Yards. Part of what makes the High Line so special is that it is elevated above the surrounding city, separated and offering a respite from it. Doesn’t that go away if the surrounding city is brought up to the same level?
That’s not to say there’s nothing to like in phase 3. One highlight is a sunken area above West 30th Street where children can crawl hamster-like through tunnels and compartments. This is also the part of the line where one can best see that it was at one time a functioning rail line, with more of the rails and ties left in place, and even the occasional switch machinery which has been removed in the other phases of the line, left in place here. And the views of the West Side Yard, Midtown Manhattan, and the Hudson River are sweeping — that is, until the rail yard and Midtown are obscured by the Hudson Yards.
Itself obscured by a lack of vision, the High Line, like so much of the most beloved parts of our cityscape, was almost demolished. (Parts of it, totaling about half the original viaduct’s length, were in fact dismantled in 1960 and 1991.) Now its transformation is finished, and it creates a green ribbon of respite through some of the densest development on earth. It has been 80 years since freight trains traveled the West Side Line in 1934, and 34 since the viaduct closed in 1980. It has been well worth the