High Time for the High Line

New York City is creating a park in the sky
July 2009
Christopher Swope
By Christopher Swope  |  Former Editor
Christopher Swope was GOVERNING's executive editor.

Six years ago, Joshua David gave me a bike tour of an abandoned elevated rail line in Manhattan. We darted up and down the gritty streets below the tracks, starting in Chelsea, where auto body shops mixed with art galleries, and ending in the Meatpacking District, which by then had already begun to employ more nightclub bouncers than butchers. David enjoyed pointing out how rivets in the steel girders formed intricate patterns. But it was the view from up top that he loved the most.

The tracks had essentially gone back to nature. The result was a strange urban oasis--a 1.5-mile strip of meadow, levitating 30 feet in the air. David had co-founded a nonprofit whose goal was to save the High Line from demolition and turn it into a park unlike any other in the United States. Although Mayor Michael Bloomberg had endorsed this idea in 2003, the odds of it coming to pass seemed long. Any number of obstacles could have stopped it, from the legal hurdles of transferring ownership of the right-of-way, to opposition from people who owned the land under the line, to coming up with the money to do the restoration work.

So I was surprised and delighted when I heard recently that the first stretch of the High Line park has actually opened. The reviews are all positive. The park's concrete-plank walkways fade seamlessly into plantings that hide remains of the old railroad tracks. In a few places, the park plunges right through old industrial buildings.

Judging by the big crowds that have gone out to stroll it, the High Line has been a hit with the public. That's obviously a good thing, but it's ironic, too. What first drew David to the grassy track bed was that it was a "secret place up there that nobody could get to, just waiting to be explored." The High Line is many things now--a model of urban revitalization, a landscape architecture showcase and a driver of development--but it's definitely not a secret anymore.

Could something like the High Line be replicated in other U.S. cities? At first blush, it seems improbable. The High Line benefitted from its location in a gentrifying neighborhood and fund-raising by New York celebrities. But one thing about this story can resonate anywhere: People are intrigued by old infrastructure, and especially fascinated to experience it in unfamiliar ways. And one thing that cities have is a lot of decaying infrastructure: aging urban freeways, abandoned aqueducts and unused rail lines. Cincinnati has a subway that never carried a passenger. Before they go tearing these things down, cities should give some thought to what else they might become.