Walking the High Line

High LineNew York City’s newest park is elevated 30 feet above the city streets, on the tracks of a defunct rail line. On October 14, photography faculty member Joel Sternfeld led a a small group of the College's closest supporters on a tour of the High Line park, starting at Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District.

Sternfeld had photographed the High Line back when it was an abandoned structure overgrown with wild plants. He was one of a handful of people who had legal permission to explore the tracks, and his photos helped end the long battle between the preservationists and developers who fought over the fate of the High Line for two decades.

The High Line must be viewed through the lens of history, Sternfeld told the alumnae. In the 1840s, train tracks ran from the Port of New York, up 10th Avenue, and on to the rest of the country. But trains and pedestrians don’t mix, and despite the efforts of the 10th Avenue Cowboys—who would ride in front of trains to shoo people off the tracks—so many people were killed that the street was nicknamed “Death Avenue.”

For safety reasons, the railway was elevated in the 1930s. The High Line threaded right through the center of the block, sometimes cutting right through warehouses for easy unloading of goods.

With the advent of trucks in the 1950s, use of the High Line declined, and in 1980 the last commercial train rolled down the tracks. (Apocryphally, Sternfeld reported, it pulled three cars full of frozen turkeys.)

High LineAnd then the battle over the High Line began. The Chelsea Property Owners Association wanted to tear it down—no easy feat, since the 1.5 mile structure was constructed of enough steel to support two fully loaded trains simultaneously. Meanwhile, preservationists argued that the High Line should be used for transit or made into a park.

The fight dragged on for years. In 1999, Chelsea resident Joshua David MFA ’92 found out about the controversy and decided to get involved, co-founding Friends of the High Line to advocate for preservation of the tracks and hiring Sternfeld to photograph them.

David joined Sternfeld’s tour briefly and explained that Walking the High Line, the book of Sternfeld’s photos, was published at a crucial moment, when the demolition of the High Line seemed near certain. Mayor Giuliani signed the demolition papers before he left office in 2002. But the public was galvanized by Sternfeld’s photos, a raft of celebrities signed on to the cause, and Friends of the High Line took the decision to court—and won.

Mayor Bloomberg reversed the city’s position, arguing that a park would increase property values, and therefore the tax revenues, from all the buildings nearby. He appointed Amanda Burden ’76 chair of the New York City Planning Commission (as a member of the commission under Giuliani, she was one of the High Line’s earliest, most passionate champions).  The city and Friends of the High Line formed a public/private partnership, and the High Line park opened in spring 2009.

It’s a beautiful park. Sternfeld led the group of alumnae along the path, pausing to admire the views of the city and the Hudson River. Purple asters bloomed among saplings and grasses. The landscape was inspired by the plants that had colonized the abandoned tracks, Sternfeld explained; the designers tried to maintain that sense of wildness.

High Line's window onto trafficSternfeld pointed out the park’s whimsical elements: the lounge chairs on wheels that ride on the old rails, a window onto the traffic of 10th Avenue. His enthusiasm for the High Line—and for the organization that saved it—was unmistakable. “You think to get something done in New York City you need power. But our organization is not high powered. Everyone is nice. Intelligent thinking won the day. Intelligence and good manners and being considerate of people. The park is a monument to positive, intelligent thinking.”

The park ends at 20th Street, though the tracks go on. The section between 20th Street and 34th Street is under construction now and will open in 2010. The tracks then curve around the rail yard. The fate of that section of the High Line is, like the tracks themselves, still up in the air, though the city’s recent move to begin acquiring that section of the High Line bode well for its future transformation.

—Suzanne Walters Gray MFA ’04

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