The West Side line of the New York Central Railroad was long known as the lifeline of New York since much of the city depended on the transportation of milk, poultry, meat, and other express merchandise along this, the only all-rail freight line on Manhattan Island. The street-level tracks authorized in 1847 were, however, a terrible liability. Over the next 80 years, so many accidents occurred that men known as the West Side Cowboys rode on horseback ahead of the trains, waving red flags. Ironically, essential parts of the ‘lifeline’ became deadly: 10th Avenue, for instance, was nicknamed ‘Death Avenue’.
Image credit: Jonathan Lukes
From its humble beginnings as a wood planing mill in 1861, the Western Electric site evolved into an elaborate complex that housed the research laboratories of Bell Telephone for over 75 years. A world centre for sound communication innovation, the labs produced new types of switchboards, telephone cables, transistors, and the first electronic amplifiers. Harold D. Arnold's invention, the high vacuum tube, solved a major technological problem in 1914 by making transcontinental telephone service possible. The complex was converted (1967-1970) under the direction of architect Richard Meier into a housing, studio, and theatre centre. This was the first subsidized housing complex for artists in the United States and one of the first major adaptations of an industrial building for reuse.
Photo credits: David L. Paterson
Finally, in 1999, two West Side residents formed an organization called Friends of the High Line that began seriously advocating for preservation and restoration in the form of a public park. Architect Casey Jones was granted a fellowship to conduct a research and planning study, followed by the first sign of City Council support in 2002. The idea became more viable when it was projected that tax revenues created by the reuse of the space could realistically cover the cost of construction.
The variety of native plant species integrated into the park’s landscape was inspired by the range that grew up naturally in the urban wilderness created by 25 years of abandonment. Hardy and sustainable, these trees, shrubs, perennials, and grasses produce texture and colour variation, as well as diversity in bloom times over a long season (late January to mid-November).
Photo credits: David L. Paterson
The same level of attention was afforded the question of community involvement, which has been encouraged from the beginning. In 2009, High Line Art was founded to coordinate site-specific commissions, performances, and billboard interventions.
Along with the practical work of cleaning, preparing, and securing each part of the structure during construction, the High Line has become a model for the productive dialogue that can occur between landscape, history, art, architecture, and design in an urban neighbourhood – not just at the completion of a project, but throughout the entire process.
Image credit: James R. Irwin
In 1929, the city, the railroad company, and the State of New York agreed to a plan that would ultimately cost over $150 million dollars, the equivalent of approximately 2 billion today. The West Side Improvement Project, incorporating the High Line, an elevated structure with at least 14-foot clearance, eliminated 105 ground-level railroad crossings. The 13-mile-long line, running from 34th Street to the newly constructed St. John’s Park Freight Terminal, connected directly to factories and warehouses built specifically for sidetrack service, allowing trains to roll right into them.
At the time of the terminal’s dedication on June 28th, 1934, the project represented one of the greatest endeavours ever undertaken by joint public and private interests in Manhattan. Just to secure the right of way through the industrial district involved about 350 separate deals across 60 city blocks. In addition to improving street safety and avoiding trucking costs for businesses located along the West Side line, the project added 32 acres to Riverside Park with the coverage of the railway north of 72nd Street.
Despite the incredible vision and collaboration inherent in such a large-scale enterprise as the West Side Improvement and the fact that the project left an indelible mark on the New York cityscape (if only as evidenced by the many dramatic films featuring the overhead track as a backdrop), the longevity of the lifeline was far from assured. Full operation began in 1934 on the heels of the Great Depression, which saw rail freight shipments drop by 50 per cent. It had taken 40 years to conclude the agreement that led to the construction of the High Line; its popularity and usefulness lasted about as long. Once truck shipping muscled its way back into the economy, rail traffic dwindled to about two carloads per week.
The final blow came in the form of a one-year interruption in service in 1980 due to the construction of the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. In the decades that followed, bids for renewal battled demolition schemes with little hope of resolution. It seemed that the elegant but rusting structure’s death would be as drawn out and agonizing as its birth.
In 2003, an international design competition was launched, leading to an exhibition of 720 proposals at Grand Central Terminal. The services of landscape architects James Corner Field Operations and architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro were retained for the construction, along with specialists in engineering, horticulture, security, maintenance, and public art. Groundbreaking took place in April 2006 with the lifting of the first rail. Over the next 8 years, work was pursued on the various sections of the park:
1. Gansevoort Street to West 20th Street
2. West 20th Street to West 30th Street
3. Rail Yards
Visitors were treated to openings in the third and final section in 2014.