Reinventing a railroad

New Yorks abandoned High Line is being transformed into an elevated park that offers a new way to experience the city.

This article was originally published on July 17, 2009.

As America busily transforms itself into Information Nation, we've rediscovered the tough beauty of our old downtown manufacturing buildings. Their light-saturated, industrial-age interiors are intensely coveted by the creative class. So then, where's the love for the monumental structures that supported those churning workshops - the grain elevators, coal chutes, and elevated rail lines that were the 20th century's equivalent of the great cathedrals and aqueducts?  

The recent restoration and reinvention of New York's High Line should go a long way toward opening people's eyes to the potential of those industrial relics. Built in the 1930s to supply the meatpackers and manufacturers on Manhattan's West Side, the abandoned rail line has just been repurposed as a glorious elevated park that offers a delightful new way to experience the city.  

Traditionally, city parks have been envisioned as serene enclosures, cocooning us from the hubbub of urban life. The new High Line park does the opposite: It provides a viewing platform to take in the theater of the street. 

The park, which should be a model for Philadelphia's unloved Reading Viaduct in the Loft District, also serves as an auxiliary stage on which to try out new dramas. Although the first nine blocks of New York's ribbon park went public only in June, the shifting garden path - designed by Philadelphia's James Corner, along with New York's Diller, Scofidio + Renfro - already is one of Manhattan's hottest tickets. 

Set in the heart of Chelsea's art and design district, the High Line plays host to a daily style parade from the nearby galleries and fashion houses. With its array of sustainable, IPE wood chaise longues, diving-board-style benches, and cafe tables, the scene is part poolside, part office-worker's respite. The first week alone, about 70,000 people clattered up the park's steel staircases, which begin at Gansevoort Street, just east of 10th Avenue. 

The four entrances were cut into the bed of the existing structure, and all were intentionally designed as narrow slits that constrict views of the park. As a result, you don't merely emerge onto the surface, you burst into a 360-degree vortex of open sky. The long-distance views extend to the southern tip of Manhattan, but there are also more intimate glimpses into the meatpacking district's surviving cobblestone lanes. 

The unusual perch is key to the High Line's charm. You can certainly get a dramatic view of Manhattan's streets from the Empire State Building, but that's like watching a movie play out on your iPhone in comparison to the High Line's IMAX experience. As Corner observed during a recent walk, the park "is primarily an instrument to see the city. "

Corner, who chairs the University of Pennsylvania's landscape architecture department (and is a finalist for the city's Pier 11 park design), beat out several well-known architects for the High Line commission in 2004 largely because his design recognized that the derelict structure could be a neutral ground - uniting nature and the industrial city. Essentially, Corner and his New York-based Field Operations were proposing to refine what the High Line had already become.  

During the two decades that the structure sat vacant, it had evolved into a dense meadow that was almost primal in its wildness. Thick grasses and weed trees obscured its railroad past. Because such wide-open spaces are rare in Manhattan, the rusting structure became a favorite with urban explorers.

When developers began lobbying New York officials for demolition in the late 1990s, its admirers launched a campaign to make people appreciate the industrial stray. They enlisted the noted photographer Joel Sternfeld to document the High Line's unusual beauty. His images revealed a romantic, ever-changing ghost street wending its way silently above Chelsea's hectic art scene. 

Those photographs proved more powerful than the High Line's fans ever imagined. Instead of demanding demolition, developers began pushing into Chelsea with glittering condos designed by some of architecture's biggest names. New York officials did a quick about-face and asked the High Line's admirers to start raising money for a city park. 

They provided Corner's team with an astounding $150 million to pour into the project, which eventually will snake up 10th Avenue and wrap around the West Side rail yards before concluding at 34th Street, a block from Penn Station.  

The money has been well spent. About half went into refurbishing the riveted steel structure, which runs mid-block in many places and tunnels through existing buildings. Initially there was some thought of incorporating the weeds and steel rails, but Corner chose to excavate down to the concrete bed and re-create the meadow. 

While Corner's High Line landscape looks as if it has been sown by the wind, it is really a constructed garden whose plantings were carefully chosen by Dutch horticulturist Piet Oudolf to evoke a more colorful, more sculptural version of a wild meadow. Plants with shapely, ornamental seed pods were favored, and the list includes such familiar species as Andropogon grass, liriope, astilbe, begonia, and flowering quince, along with river birches and sumac trees.  

Corner wanted the plantings to look as if they had sprouted randomly, so he designed paving planks that taper at the ends, creating narrow openings that mimic the cracks of the rail bed. Sections of rail were also reinstalled, giving the impression of having always been there. Meanwhile, Corner's furniture designs riff on nature's resilience: His park benches are a continuation of the pavers. They rise from the surface, just as the park's design emerged out of the wild landscape. Chaise longues roll along the rails as freight trains once did. 

Because the High Line is so linear, Corner struggled to keep the park itself from feeling like a bowling alley. The path intentionally bobs and weaves, opening up unexpected perspectives on surrounding buildings, like the fluttering white glass sails on Frank Gehry's IAC offices and Jean Nouvel's gridded, blue-glass condos on 11th Avenue. 

As with a natural landscape, the experience changes as you move through it. There's a boggy area here, a small forest there, then suddenly a man-made intrusion rears up. One of the most dramatic is Polshek Partnership Architects' 265-foot-tall Standard hotel, which aggressively straddles the old freight bed. Farther on, you come to Diller, Scofidio's amphitheater, which offers a wide-screen view of the passing traffic on 10th Avenue - and makes it as riveting as a Broadway show.  

Unlike the waterfront paths that have become popular in New York and Philadelphia, the High Line is not a recreation trail where pedestrians are forced to dodge bikes and joggers. It's conceived as a refuge for the old-fashioned flaneur, a place to stroll, people-watch, or just do nothing.  

In Philadelphia, a like-minded group of urban explorers has been advocating for a local version of the High Line on the Reading Viaduct , which runs from Vine to Brown Street, shifting eastward from 11th to Ninth. Unfortunately, Chinatown leaders have loudly opposed the idea, arguing - like the New York developers - that the viaduct should be torn down to create land for housing.  

Forget the huge cost of demolishing the viaduct - estimated at $35 million. Losing the noble stone structure would actually strip Philadelphia's Loft District of a potentially valuable amenity and make it a less distinctive place to live. As the High Line shows: Leave it and they will come. 

Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or