I woke up and took a quick look out the window of my mate’s apartment in New York City’s East Village. It showed cloudless blue skies, leaving me with the assumption that one of the city’s famed sunshine-filled, early Fall days lay ahead.
“A perfect day to get high” I thought. And by high, I meant checking out the new-ish High Line Park on Manhattan’s lower West side that I had heard so much about. Getting as close as I could on the subway, I found my way to the abandoned railway-line-come-modern-park, and set off along its 1.6 km walkway.
About halfway along, I began to hear the muffled sounds of some sort of brass instrument. Having prioritised the travel category of my life the last few years, I have witnessed the skills of street performers and musicians all over the world. I have to admit that, on first impression the busker I could all but see didn’t exactly have me reaching into my pockets.
Coming around a slight curve in the path, I finally came across the source of the music – a single musician playing a trombone. As I entered the immediate area he was playing in, it may as well have been a completely new performer. The trombonist was in a spot that allowed the surrounding buildings to echo and amplify his unique sound, causing each and every passer-by to stop and consciously watch him for at least a few seconds. The sounds of jazz being belted out from the rugged trombone of the young, stylish musician seemed to perfectly complement the park and its history.
The Rise of the High Line
The later half of the 19th century saw areas of Lower West Manhattan become home to regional produce markets, slaughterhouses and meat packing plants. If you’re were looking for hotels in New York back then, this was not the district, as it is today. The roads in the area catered for both motor vehicles and freight trains, which travelled in and out of the city on street-level rail lines. The combination of freight trains and cars didn’t go down too well, and the suburb quickly earned the cheery nickname of “Death Valley.” Eventually an elevated railway line was constructed to alleviate the chaos being caused on the streets in 1934. The rise of national supermarket chains, highway systems and interstate trucking saw a dramatic drop in national rail dependence through the 1950’s, and eventually the last freight train rolled out of the High Line in 1980. So aside from sections that were demolished, the area fell into disrepair and abandonment.
A Second Chance
The future of the High Line wasn’t looking too bright – it was earmarked by the City of New York for dismantling and demolition. A committed group of locals banded together and rallied their local government to save the railway line and turn it into the linear public space that it is today. The popularity of the idea spread and the line was officially handed over to the City from the Surface Transportation Board. Construction on the High Line’s new role started in 2006, with the first section opening to the public in 2009 and the second in 2011.
Today the pedestrian-only path that travels the length of the park, zigzagging through garden beds that bear sections of train tracks, gives a constant and subtle reminder of the park’s origins. Benches, fountains, murals, sculptures, ‘urban theatres’ and sun chairs are scattered along the path, as it winds through buildings from all parts of New York’s architectural history.
Much like the young musician who was bringing a particular style of music to a wide audience, leaving them appreciative of it regardless of their musical preferences, the High Line is an incredible example of a city recycling its history so that it can be both valued and enjoyed by the generations to come.