Taking the High Line

Nature and industry converge on an abandoned Manhattan railroad.

By Phillip Lopate

The High Line on the far West Side of Manhattan

Credit: Courtesy of Friends of the High Line

On a frigid winter day earlier this year, I found myself walking in air, through and yet above the familiar streets of Manhattan's West Side. I was only about 18 to 30 feet above street level, and yet that modest extra altitude made for a profoundly different peripatetic experience: As in a dream in which I could walk through walls, I passed in and out of factories, stared into the back yards of private residences, saluted the Gothic revival red brick fortress of the General Theological Seminary, and hovered like a seagull within sight of New York City's waterfront.

I was walking, for the first time, along the "High Line," a 1.45-mile elevated railroad built in the 1930s to move freight on the western side of Manhattan. Thirty years later the line was deemed obsolete, due to the trucking industry's dominance over rail freight and the displacement of the Port of New York to New Jersey. It stands today abandoned and mysterious, the kind of industrial remnant one increasingly finds littering the American urban landscape.

Being a native New Yorker, skeptical by birth and soured by a lifetime's exposure to jive planning schemes, I was not expecting to be swept away by the experience of walking upon this defunct engineering marvel. I had passed the raised, rusty metalwork for years without noticing much at all. But ever since I first heard of the notion of turning the viaduct into an elevated pedestrian "park," I had been eager to take a look.

In 1999, a group called Friends of the High Line, started by Joshua David and Robert Hammond, began campaigning to convert the structure into a public promenade. The High Line, owned by the railroad company CSX, was sound and would require only repaving and a new design for pedestrian access. This idea, at first blush improbably romantic, began to gain public momentum, thanks in part to the organizers' ability to attract A-list supporters, such as the actor Edward Norton. The newly elected mayor, Michael Bloomberg, was enthusiastically behind the plan, and CSX was amenable as well. A design for the promenade has now been chosen, and the plan needs only the formal approval of a Washington, D.C., railroad oversight bureau.

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