High ideals on the High Line

High ideals on the High Line

Rediscovering architectural heritage and giving the community a new public space. What’s not to like?

When I was a boy and everywhere was fields, I would go for family walks which traversed public parks and burst onwards along Lancashire’s decayed industrial byways, following filled-in canals and skirting closed railways. Their purpose changed from business to leisure, such routes are now pleasingly plentiful; the UK has Europe’s second-longest “rail trail” network (after Germany, where they’re always quick to efficiently organise leisure) and the US is also seeing the appeal.

A case in point is the High Line. A high-level railway opened in 1934 to service the industry and warehouses of Manhattan’s Lower West Side, it had grown increasingly obsolete during the 1950s and closed altogether by the 1980s. Local businesses wanted it demolished and Rudy Giuliani was happy to oblige, but savvy advocates raised public support and funding by using photography of the bucolic wildscape into which the untouched line had (over)grown. By 2004 Michael Bloomberg’s administration set aside $50m for the creation of an urban park; the first section opened five years later, with two more following since and another to come.


What New York now has is a fascinating two-kilometre walk in which covered tracks share space with wild meadows and art installations as they weave through the urban architecture. Walking south in the late afternoon sunshine, it was a pleasure of a place to be and set the mind to wondering how many of these things can be done in other cities. Barely a week previously, London mayor Sadiq Khan had finally killed the ridiculous Garden Bridge, a pointless money-pit which would pour public money into private pockets for a river crossing nobody requested. Here was a better idea: instead of a trophy bridge between the already-busy South Bank and Embankment, why not revivify a rundown area with a well-considered walkway that works would open up underheralded neighbourhoods? Better the crowdfunded Camden Highline or Peckham Coal Line than a vanity window-box in a part of town that needed no boost.

Not everyone likes the High Line: it was recently the subject of a mealy-mouthed Guardian complaint that its halo effect had gentrified the Chelsea and meatpacking neighbourhoods, as if preserving poverty in perpetuity were a noble pursuit. The real problem isn’t that improvements drive up prices but that the resultant pricetags are too quickly beyond all but the richest — hardly a problem that can be solved by letting infrastructure rust to ruin and denying people a place to go. And go they do: in 2015 around 7.5m people walked the High Line. Maybe among them will be someone who can help revive a similar forgotten byway, or simply a small boy walking with his family and discovering the delights of looking up at that which was thought forgotten and useless.

Originally published on Facebook, 23 Aug 2017.


Traintrack trees. The greenery is politely fenced off from the walkway, the better to keep it wild.


Did someone say gentrification? West 28th Street has received an apartment block designed by Zaha Hadid. As is often the case with Hadid’s work, it grabs the attention, and as is also often the case, not necessarily for the right reasons. The development contains New York’s first private 3D IMAX cinema, which sounds as gauchely arriviste as this block looks.


Above some of the streets the High Line crosses, viewing platforms allow visitors and locals alike to enjoy a new view of the canyons. This one looks east down 26th Street toward the Flatiron District.


During the 1940s, some of the warehouses alongside the High Line held several tons of uranium for the Manhattan Project.


Gazing past London Terrace Apartments, once the largest apartment complex in the world. Built from 1929, it includes about 1700 dwellings and an Olympic-sized swimming pool.


Like a stoner scoffing junk food, the building named HL23 (High Line and 23rd Street) gets wider as it gets higher.


As you pass along the way (and shadows fall — it’s late in the day), the perspective changes and you are rewarded with constantly evolving juxtapositions of architecture old and new. Neither vintage is necessarily worse than the other.


The Standard Hotel was completed in 2009, a few months before the opening of the High Line section it straddles. The only modern building to cross the new park, it’s also the last: all future development will take place to one side or the other.


Which way next?

Around NYC

Around NYC

Jane Jacobs and humanist architecture

Jane Jacobs and humanist architecture