In a quiet corner of Chelsea, the pedestrian path of the High Line zigzags lazily between posh apartments and artsy lofts. On a sunny afternoon towards the end of summer, a gentle breeze from the Hudson River sweeps across the tufts of grass and colorful flowers. Rusty train tracks are the only reminder that the elevated walkway used to be a railway bringing food products into what was once a bustling industrial district. These days, the High Line feels like a tree-lined runway for aspiring models above the roaring traffic on 10th Avenue—providing respite for New Yorkers and the perfect Instagram backdrop for visitors.
Half of the plants on either side of the pedestrian paths are native species, but the chief designer of this sliver of green space in Manhattan’s gray concrete jungle does not want people to think it’s an attempt to bring a slice of wilderness back to New York.
“It’s not nature at all,” says Dutch landscape artist Piet Oudolf in an interview with PBS NewsHour. “What we do is just—we create artificial sort of communities, but also enhance the beauty of nature in a smaller area.” The designer explains that the goal is to create a design reminiscent of nature. And Oudolf seems to have succeeded: The gardens conjure a vision of what’s possible if more derelict and unused open spaces are repurposed as pockets of greenery amid gleaming towers.
Originally built in the early 1900s, the officially re-named High Line was also called the “Life Line of New York.” And for good reason. Freight trains chugged along the elevated tracks bringing meat, fresh produce, and dairy by traversing directly through warehouses on the West Side, to more efficiently deliver supplies and leave car traffic undisturbed, at the height of a population and manufacturing boom in Manhattan. By mid-century, however, retail centers and office buildings replaced factories giving way for residential neighborhoods. By the 1960s, refrigerated trucks began transporting products on a network of interstate highways, gradually replacing rail traffic. The last train came to a halt on the High Line in 1980 “carrying three truckloads of frozen turkeys,” per a description on one of the billboards at the northern end of the tracks on 30th Street.
Another billboard features a photo of the co-founders of Friends of the High Line, Joshua David and Robert Hammond, on the abandoned tracks. Hammond, in an interview on PBS, described seeing the “one-and-a half miles of wildflowers in the middle of New York City” for the first time, “There was incredible tension between hard and soft, nature and manmade, the beautiful and the ugly, and you know, sort of the progress and decay of the city, and that’s really what I fell in love with.”
Back in 1999, the two men had opposed the planned demolition of the railway line. While they wanted the High Line preserved, they didn’t quite know what to do with it.
As part of their efforts, Hammond and David hired a professional photographer to document the High Line in every season for one year. The images taken by Joel Sternfeld show the bursts of color in spring, the orange and yellow hues of autumn, and the desolate tracks as a dreamy snowscape in winter.
The preservation effort picked up steam when then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a long-time environmental campaigner, threw his support behind the High Line in 2002. The railway owner donated the elevated structure. The City of New York revoked the demolition order and gave initial funding to the nonprofit Friends of the High Line to manage the public space in partnership with the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation. Business and political leaders donated philanthropic money and mobilized some $20 million in federal funding for the large-scale landscape project. Names such as Hillary Clinton, Senator Charles Schumer, Diller-von Furstenberg Foundation, Tiffany & Co. Foundation, and Jane Lauder are inscribed on a metal wall at the 14th Street passage of the High Line.