THE HIGH LINE - NEW YORK, NEW YORK
The first time I visited the High Line, I had to jump a fence and squeeze through a hole to get in. Back then, the mile-and-a-half long railroad trestle was abandoned and ruled by a wilderness of plants. Today it’s a public park, with elevators that take visitors 30 feet above ground and into an expertly designed garden in the sky.
Sometime after 1847, when a new 10th Avenue railroad put freight trains on a collision course with pedestrians, Manhattan’s “Death Avenue” earned its nickname. Accidents declined when the High Line opened in 1934 as part of New York’s “West Side Improvement” program. Innovatively designed, the railroad weaved above and to the side of businesses between 10th and 11th Avenues.
In 1980, the city shut down the High Line. Nature took over, quietly, like a secret. Birds and wind dispersed seeds onto the forgotten landscape and feisty plants like evening primrose, goldenrod and sumac made it their home.
My first trip was in December of 2006. One minute my husband and I were on bustling 34th street, the next we were alone in a wilderness. We walked the U-shaped tracks above the west side rail yards and reached a corrugated metal wall. A savvy explorer had cut a hole in the bottom and we shimmied through, greeted on the other side by a four-foot pine treedecked in Christmas lights. Wild plants snaked around splintered wooden tracks. To the east stood the Empire State building. A nest full of eggs sat at the top of loading station. And UFO 907, the space alien graffiti found in some of the most obscure and ostentatious spots in NYC, stood 10-feet tall on a wall marked by previous explorers, but we had the railroad to ourselves.
I would return to the High Line again and again, hooked on walking those tracks in solitude above the city. I snuck up even as construction to transform the railroad into a public park went full gear. Friends of the High Line, a group of preservationists, had won their long battle against the city, which had planned to demolish the railroad.
Decades before Friends gave Death Avenue a public life, there was Peter Obletz, a train aficionado who began living by the High Line’s north end in the 1970s, back when the infamously rough neighborhood served as a backdrop to Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Obletz dreamed of restoring service to the High Line and bought it for ten dollars from Conrail in 1984. Neighboring property owners and the Department of Transportation fought him in court for years. His struggle helped keep the High Line intact, even though he lost the case and most of his money.
Joel Sternfeld, who photographed the High Line from 2000-2001, also helped. His moody images gave New Yorkers a glimpse of a wild landscape most had never seen— and a hint of what could be.
The High Line opened to the public in April 2009. Foxtail lilies, prairie grasses, birch trees and hundreds of other plant species now surround visitors as they walk the 80-year-old trestle. The park also functions as a green roof, with pathways made of open-jointed planks that reduce storm runoff by up to 80%. What was once wild is now a carefully designed and well-tended garden. It is still beautiful.
Guide note: For further reading…
High Line History, TheHighLine.org
“When a Monster Plied the West Side,” New York Times, Dec. 22, 2011.
“The Charming Gadfly Who Saved the High Line,” New York Times, May 13, 2007.
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Irene Tejaratchi Hess is a photographer, video editor and writer. She was born in Manhattan and raised in the Bronx, where evenings brought the sweet song of the mourning dove and the low whistle of a mobster calling his kids home for dinner. Irene spent her early career producing natural history documentaries for the PBS series Nature. She now lives in Portland, Oregon and recently finished editing a documentary on the Marine National Monuments. Find more of her work on her website, www.IreneHess.com, and follow her on Tumblr at luxroxvox.tumblr.com.