High times on the High Line

As autumn draws us into New York City with its exceptional weather, what could be more enjoyable than a stroll through the park as we take in the crisp air and multicolored landscape while watching the crowds of passers-by?

The park I’m thinking of, though, is not Central Park. It’s one built on a defunct railway set 30 feet above Manhattan, winding 1½ miles through the West Side.

The High Line is a revolutionary park that took old city infrastructure and brilliantly repurposed it as an innovative public park, creating a unique opportunity for new green space.

An overnight sensation, the park has become New York’s hottest must-see destination for out-of-towners and a regular neighborhood hangout for residents. The park is owned by the city but maintained and operated by Friends of the High Line, the nonprofit founded by community residents who rallied to save the inactive freight line from demolition, and the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation.

As Mayor Michael Bloomberg told The New York Times in July, “In the three short years since the first section opened as a park, the High Line has become a treasured neighborhood oasis, a significant generator of economic activity for the entire city and a celebrated icon for planners, designers and leaders around the world.”

The urban park stretches through three of the city’s most dynamic neighborhoods – the Meatpacking District, West Chelsea and the beginning of Hell’s Kitchen.

The first section of the park, which runs from Gansevoort Street to West 20th Street, was open to the public in June 2009.

Phase two opened this past June and runs from 20th Street to 30th Street.

The third and final section, which will cost $85 million, will end at 34th Street near the Javits Center.

The pry line

A mélange of metal, concrete and foliage creates a bucolic refuge from the bustling streets below while still preserving and honoring the historic freight line that once roared above the city. Walking the forested pathways affords a more intimate cityscape of the neighborhood in the sky where fishbowl apartments offer visitors a voyeuristic view that has led the New York Post to dub the park “the Pry Line.”

Up-close-and-personal scenes are so beguiling on the green corridor that pedestrians may be tempted to pay more attention to the people than the innovative gardens designed by Piet Oudolf, whose design draws inspiration from the wild gardens that took root after the trains went into disuse. The variation in design along the 1½-mile stretch is thus reflective of those microclimates that developed naturally on the High Line. The designer’s abundant use of perennials requires less maintenance and allows for an appealing look throughout the four seasons.

Slaughter on 10th Avenue

When you’re not busy people watching or marveling at the gardens, you’ll likely be surprised by the vistas, which give visitors a completely new vantage point from which to see the city.

One of my favorite spots is at 10th Avenue Square, where steel beams of the Square’s upper deck were removed to make way for wooden seating, steps and glass walls, creating a widescreen perspective on10th Avenue below as visitors watch cars drive underneath the structure. The Square also looks south across the Hudson River to the Statue of Liberty.

A wide array of artwork is presented at the popular gathering spot, including Spencer Finch’s “The River That Flows Both Ways,” a glass installation, inspired by a 700-minute journey along the Hudson River, on permanent display. The title comes from the translation of the river’s Indian name, Muhheakantuck.)

The park also plays host to many events and fundraisers and provides visitors with hundreds of free community activities, including guided walking tours on Tuesdays.

The High Line was built in the 1930s as part of an effort to end the deadly accidents that occurred between freight trains and street-level traffic. So frequent were the accidents that 10th Avenue became known as Death Avenue.

But as interstate trucking grew, freight train traffic declined, until finally in 1980, the elevated rail saw its final run.

For the next 20 years, nature reclaimed its own. Grasses grew, wildflowers blossomed and trees sprouted. While many saw the wild urban garden as an eyesore, others glimpsed the roots of a new beginning.

Many championed the development of a park, including its co-founders, Joshua David and Robert Hammond; and high-profile residents like actor Edward Norton, who sits on the board; designer Diane Von Fürstenberg and her husband, media tycoon Barry Diller, who have been the park’s biggest financial contributors.

Recently, Von Furstenberg debuted a new collection of limited edition High Line-inspired apparel and products, available exclusively from the High Line Web Shop. All proceeds from merchandise sales support the ongoing maintenance and operations of the High Line. More than 90 percent of the funding needed to maintain the park is raised by the Friends of the High Line.

The High Line is open 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.

For more, call the High Line Information Line (212) 500-6035 or visit thehighline.org

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