When you need a break from the hustle and bustle of New York City, head to the High Line. This urban oasis is a public park built on an historic freight rail line elevated above the streets on Manhattan’s West Side. It’s a pedestrian-only walkway full of art, beautiful landscaping and dynamic architecture. And it has become a global inspiration for municipalities around the world to transform unused industrial areas into vibrant spaces for everyone to enjoy.
The High Line’s history dates back to the mid-1800s when freight trains, run by NY Central Railroad, delivered food to lower Manhattan on street level tracks. Unfortunately, this created hazardous conditions for pedestrians and by 1910, more than 540 people had been killed by trains.
Eventually, the city ordered the street level crossings to be removed and an elevated rail line to be created. The lines went directly through some buildings, providing easy access to factories like the National Biscuit Company (aka Nabisco), now home to the well-known Chelsea Market.
By the 1960s, train use declined due to trucking taking a dominant transportation role and it continued to dwindle with all traffic finally stopping in the 80s. Total demolition of the lines soon followed. It was at this point that some local residents began brainstorming ideas for repurposing the structure.
Public prospects for the High Line, however, went through a waxing and waning process in the ensuing years, causing many people to label the structure a hideous eyesore. Mayor Giuliani even signed a demolition order for it in 1999. Thankfully, it never was acted upon, as several people in the community saw the beauty of this hidden landscape, which had become an Edenesque garden of wild plants.
Joshua David and Robert Hammond subsequently formed the Friends of the High Line, a non-profit conservancy to advocate for the High Line’s preservation and reuse as a public space. In 2003, the organization hosted an “idea competition” to drive awareness and excitement for the transformation of the High Line. It received over 700 ideas, with several that were not practical or unrealistic, such as a rollercoaster or mile-long lap pool!
A special zoning area was proposed to facilitate the use of the High Line as a public park and the City council passed the rezoning. The front page of the New York Times read, “Frog of a Railroad to Become Prince of a Park.”
In 2009, the first section of the High Line opened to the public. Flash forward and today it spans 1.45 miles or 22 blocks long, from Gansevoort St. to W. 34th St. This continuous greenway is maintained and operated by Friends of the High Line in partnership with the NYC Department of Parks & Recreation.
The park is a beloved public space that features a curated planting design inspired by the landscape that grew untamed for 25 years after the trains stopped running. It’s an everchanging palette of textures and colors in all four seasons.
As you walk the High Line, you’ll also note the world-class artwork. It’s the only park in the Big Apple with a dedicated, multimedia, contemporary art program which is offered 365 days a year – all for free. Works by national and international artists dot the area, engaging with the varied elements of the High Line.
“The Wind Blows Where it Wishes,” by Gabriel Chaile, for example, is a hard-to-miss, large adobe sculpture. Conceived for the High Line, the piece is “inspired by Biblical passages about the wind as a transmitter of forces and representations of natural phenomena in art history, as well as pre-Columbian archaeological ceramics from Argentina.”
Another, “NYC Love,” by Nina Chanel Abney, is a mural that’s an ode to the city and its many sights, smells and sensations.
Cosima von Bonin’s work, “WHAT IF THEY BARK?” is a fun group of anthropomorphic fish sculptures that attracts much attention.
The meld of components – art, architecture and nature – presents a wonderful visual canvas and provides an opportunity for people to have their own dialogue with the surrounding neighborhood and urban scape.
There are seating areas, seasonal food and drink options, some arts and crafts booths and plenty of picturesque views on display, from the Statue of Liberty to the Hudson River. And it’s a great place to people watch, too!
There’s no real starting point to the High Line, as you can enter from multiple access junctures via stairs, ramps and elevators. And you’ll be able to stroll carefree, without the constraints of traffic lights, cars, etc. Stop when you want, walk down to street level and check out the different neighborhoods, then go back up again and resume your meanderings. It’s easy for everyone to experience this delightful, elevated park.Debbie Stone is an established travel writer and columnist, who crosses the globe in search of unique destinations and experiences to share with her readers and listeners. She’s an avid explorer who welcomes new opportunities to increase awareness and enthusiasm for places, culture, food, history, nature, outdoor adventure, wellness and more. Her travels have taken her to nearly 100 countries spanning all seven continents, and her stories appear in numerous print and digital publications.