The New Park on the Old High Line

For a park so young, the High Line Park, built on an abandoned freight train track that runs from Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District to 34th Street, between 10th & 11th Avenues, has already created a mythology of sorts for itself. Reviews of the park in various publications, a packed events calendar and a multitude of blog posts—such as the one claiming that the park is a ‘babe magnet’—have given it a larger-than-life presence. Other American cities are queuing up to emulate it: on the Bloomingdale Trail in Chicago and on the Skywalks in Morristown, Tennessee. But the High Line is a very particular product of the people and circumstances that brought it into being.

The Friends of the High Line, a non-profit group formed by concerned members of the community, wanted to find a viable way to preserve what was essentially a defunct piece of urban infrastructure. The last train ran on the High Line track in 1980, carrying, as they are strangely pleased to remind you, a load of cold turkeys. A small piece of urban wilderness soon took root on the track, beautifully documented in the photographs of Joel Sternfeld. Property owners in the area began to lobby for tearing the whole thing down, but by 2002, a resolution was passed reserving the High Line for reuse as a public space.

When the firms Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro took on the challenge of re‐imagining this iron behemoth as a public park, they were handling a bristling set of contradictions. They had to make people believe that they were strolling in a park while they were actually walking on a train track thirty feet off the ground. The park had to be modern, clean and sophisticated, but it also had to serve the purpose of historical preservation: both of the rusted, outdated High Line, and the wilderness that had grown on it. It had to deal with convoluted zoning laws while maintaining its integrity. The architects initially proposed to achieve these lofty aims with semi-transparent concrete threaded with fiber optics, snaking between plantings designed by the Dutch designer Piet Oudolf. What finally got built isn’t as futuristic, but it preserves the contradictions of the design brief, creating a taut solution that is stretched along those lines of tension.

The concrete that forms the path in the High Line today isn’t reinforced with fiber optics, but with gravel, creating a textured surface that tips its hat to cobbled park pathways. The architects create many features just by casting this concrete in different ways. The slabs of the path peel up from the walking level to form seating. In the water feature the slabs are subtly faceted, and on the sides of the path they lift gently to mark its boundaries. But most interesting are the places where the path rakes into the greenery, clawing at the soil below the plants with long tapered fingers. It sets up a tension that gives a vague impression of impermanence, rather than the integration the architects intended. You feel as if this pathway has only temporarily been snatched from the green patches. It is a memento mori wittingly built into the design: a subtle but unsettling hint that one day the park may well meet the same fate as the rail track did; that all this elaborate design effort may give in to the unruly growth; and that the High Line will again be as it was.

In fact, the architects have gone to great pains to retain the feel of the “High Line as it was”. The original structure has been painstakingly cleaned and restored, and repainted to a suitable industrial grey. But as a memoir of the orange rust that covered the High Line, there are judicious accents of COR-TEN steel near the entrances at Gansevoort Street and at 14th Street. The staircase at Gansevoort brings you up from under the High Line, allowing you to see its structural components, but there will also be a cut‐out at 30th Street: a glass floor that exposes the riveted guts of the High Line. And in the plantings, Oudolf’s wilderness seeks to recreate the weeds and shrubs that had grown over the railway tracks. But this is a meticulous dissemblance, in keeping with the larger concept of an arrested unruliness: the plants are far from weeds, and will supposedly flower all year round.

This is a park that has been built on a railway track, and signifiers of movement are everywhere. The railway tracks of the High Line were tagged during the restoration so that many of them could be returned to their original positions. As you walk in the park, rusting tracks on their beautifully weathered wooden sleepers disappear into the dense plants, and gleaming tracks set in the path converge and diverge into nowhere. The starkly linear furniture, the fingers of concrete and the lines of the path are always speeding towards a vanishing point in the distance. You could be purposefully aimless on the walking path, but to call the path “meandering” (as the architects do) is a stretch of imagination. It changes levels, branches off and comes together, but it bears you inexorably forward.

This flow of traffic pools in a few islands along the High Line: such as the Diller-von Furstenberg Sundeck and Water Feature, and the 10th Avenue Square. These islands are essentially vantage points for watching the city rush by. Elevated views of New York City aren’t scarce. But knowing that you are standing in what is, nominally at least, a park, adds a certain charm to the view. Parks weren’t traditionally meant to offer views of the city. They were an escape from those views, an opportunity to replace the vista of the urban jungle with that of a pastoral idyll. The High Line, in sharp contrast, is carefully designed to give you as many eyefuls of the city as possible. Nothing, not even the lighting of the park, obstructs the panorama that is quickly filling up with the latest offerings of star architects. Large, attention seeking buildings loom all around you and, in the case of the Standard Hotel, directly above you.

And so you don’t lose your sense of what’s below you, a special viewing area has been created in the 10th  Venue Square. A wooden pit dips below the level of the high line, hovering above the speeding traffic, offering a rather unusual spectacle through its huge glass window. Nothing in the park allows you to forget that you are in the city, because this conjunction of the urban and the wild is the essential experience of the park. One small design detail proves this hypothesis: the concrete slabs of the path are laid to always run parallel to 10th Avenue, constantly reminding you of the street below, even if the High Line itself makes angular turns away from it.

In some of its features, the High Line follows the traits of older parks, at least in spirit. Thus there is the mandatory water feature at the Sundeck; and the uneven topography. In the time-honored tradition of parks there is the public art in the form of Spencer Finch’s The River Flows Both Ways, and an already long list of temporary exhibitions. There are planned performances, with Felix Pitre, for instance; and spontaneous ones: the High Line Renegade Cabaret was performed on Patty Heffly’s fire escape that looks out onto the park. The favorite park pass time of people-watching is also provided for. You can present yourself to be watched on the reclining loungers at the Sundeck, or ogle the hapless guests of the Standard Hotel in their rooms and in the hotel’s glass-fronted restaurant.

The High Line also preserves another part of its history: the idea that it is a precarious place, a strip of green snatched out of the hands of real estate developers who might have built who‐ knows‐what in its place. Walking under buildings that envelop the High Line, you feel the pressure of the city around it. Legal rights over a column of air, it seems, are all that prevent them from swallowing it. The High Line wants you to feel lucky that it exists. It wants you to know that this may well be the future of parks, that the extravagances of Hyde Park and Central Park may no longer be possible in today’s urban reality.

The nineteenth‐century park was the antithesis of the industrial yard: a place where you went to purge yourself of the poisons of modern life. The High Line is something else entirely. It heavily references the industrial but is seemingly overcome by nature, a place for relaxation that is utterly surrounded by outsize billboards and fashionable architecture. It preserves a historical monument, but freezes it at the moment of its deterioration. It is a postmodern park: completely conscious of the city, easily   accommodating contradictions and continually self-referential.

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