My best friend Jim is famously hard to impress.
He’s pursuing a Ph.D. in Brain and Cognitive Sciences at a leading technical university. His life’s mission is to teach robots HOW TO SEE. When he succeeds, I suspect he’ll have created Skynet, like in The Terminator movies, and the human race will be doomed.
Jim is incredibly analytical. When you’re a Ph.D. candidate, you must relentlessly discard hundreds of poor ideas as you search for the one perfect pure idea that actually works. As a result: he’s an incredibly cynical traveller.
“As I get older, my bar for novelty gets higher. It’s rare that I see anything in a city that’s so rare that it completely blows my mind,” says Jim.
“When someone tells me “there’s this great new bar” I think “Wait, don’t tell me: it’ll have tables and chairs and they serve alcohol.” Or you want me to go to some ‘cool new warehouse district’? Lemme guess…it’ll have restaurants, stores, parked cars, and people walking on cobblestone streets, right? I’ve seen that. And it’s called Gastown in Vancouver. Next.”
But when Jim and I met up in New York last week, we saw something that blew Jim’s mind wide open.
It’s a new public park in Manhattan built on an old elevated freight rail line above the city’s West Side streets. Yep, they took a suspended, disused railway and converted it into a beautiful walking park right in the Meatpacking District, West Chelsea, and Hell’s Kitchen, which is some of the most sought-after property on the planet.
It’s called the High Line park, it’s a non-profit owned by the City of New York, it’s maintained by ‘Friends of the High Line’, and the park is so lovely, green, and unexpected, even famously cynical New Yorkers love it, too.
The High Line was a freight train line that ran from 1934 to 1980, carrying meat to the meatpacking district, mail to the Post Office, and agricultural goods to factories and warehouses of the industrial West Side. It was dormant for years and scheduled for demolition, but was saved for park space instead. Good call, I say.
The High Line currently has two sections that run from south to northeast, parallel to 10th Avenue. Both sections are wheelchair accessible and open daily from 7 am to 10 pm.
The first section – which runs from Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District to West 20th Street — opened in the summer of 2009. The second section, which runs between West 20th and West 30th Streets, opened two years later in 2011. When the third and final section is completed, the park will hook west, run along the Hudson River, then curl back along West 34th Street.
We started our walk on a gorgeous spring morning down at Gansevoort Street. We climbed a few flights of steps, dodging a few unemployed hipster couples out for a cheap date. And when we reached the park, Jim started grinning and saying, “Whoa. This. Is. Incredible!”
He even felt bad that he was seeing the High Line without his girlfriend. “She’s going to be so envious that she missed this. Look at it.”
So I did. And I was wowed. You will be, too.
The park is narrow and long (the entire park is 1.45-miles-long, a.k.a. 2.3 kilometers), like you’d expect from a former rail bridge. It winds right past the back windows of old New York walkup apartment buildings. I imagine the longer-term tenants, if they’re old enough, remember all these sounds:
– rumbling and crashing as old cargo trains used to shake the potted plants on their windowsills
– three decades of precious silence (punctuated by drunk hobo shouts) after the trains stopped charging through
– then the daily rumble of cement trucks pouring fresh concrete between the rail lines, followed by:
– chirping birds and cheery banter of tourist couples strolling along the plants
Naturally, fresh condos have sprung up along the High Line. But these aren’t your boring condo boxes like you find around the waterfront in Vancouver and Toronto. The High Line condos are architecturally exciting, all curves and mirrors, with patios and hot tubs overlooking the suspended park below.
The High Line has retained the rails and planks in some areas. It has water fountains, public bathrooms, 210 species of plants (161 of which are native to NYC), food vendors in the summer, street lights, viewing platforms, a sundeck, and lots of space for live concerts (you can book private events for a fee), educational walking tours, and art exhibits. Frisbees, football throwing, and dogs are not allowed, however, as the path is narrow and pee is bad for the plant species [I’m looking at you, you filthy Frisbee pee-ers].
As our western world continues to jettison old steel remnants of the industrial age, the idea of ‘rail line parks’ is spreading fast. The High Line was inspired by the city of Paris, which turned a similar rail viaduct into an elevated 4.5-kilometre park called the Promenade Plantée. Similar conversions are being planned in Chicago, Jersey City, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Rotterdam.
Till then, take a walk on the High Line. The park alone is worth a trip to New York City – and is one of Manhattan’s coolest places to wow your buddy/date/family.
Jim says it best: “You spend your whole life in cities stuck at the same vantage point. I’ve always hated being stuck on the ground. When I see some amazing vista, I wish I could interact with it. Cool buildings? Want to climb them! But I’m stuck here on the ground. The High Line, however, gets you up there. It’s only 30 feet up but that 30 feet makes everything new again. It appeals to the inner monkey in me.”
— Ken Hegan
Photos courtesy Ken Hegan, Jim Mutch, and the High Line