Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Blog Post No. 2012-18: In which we finally visit the High Line

The Photos:

Photo 1: Looking east across W. 23rd Street.
Photo 2: View northeast with Empire State Building in background.

Photo 3: Looking north along the High Line from W. 23rd Street.

Photo 4: View southwest toward Hudson River.

Photo 5: View south from around W. 23rd Street.

Photo 6: Detail of water fountain. Sticker: "Out of service for winter season."

Photo 7: View north along 10th Avenue.
Photo 8: Terroir Cafe near W. 16th Street.

The Location: The High Line, between Gansevoort Street and West 23rd Street, 9th and 10th Avenues, New York, NY. Map here.

The Story: And so, to close out the year, we return to New York and the signature product of landscape urbanism, American-style: the High Line. Though I remain a sceptic of LU, you may consider me a fan of this particular piece of urban fabric restoration and you can put this in the category of "by their fruits shall you know them, urbanism-wise." When a project works, and the High Line unquestionably does, you give credit where credit is due. All at once, this former elevated freight railroad line on Manhattan's lower west wide is a piece of industrial art, a pedestrian travel corridor, and a promenade. The level of attention to detail and curatorship is extraordinarily high. Even putting aside the multiple pieces of contemporary art that have been installed along the route, the entire High Line itself is given great care in all of its details. Thus, to take just one example, the sticker on the water fountain in photo 6. I can assure you as a native New Yorker, that I have never seen a public water fountain in the city provide any information whatsoever, let alone accurate information as to why it is not presently in service.

I would also put this in the urban revivication category alluded to in the recent post about the Islanders moving to the borough of Kings. According to the Friends of the High Line website, the High Line was originally built above old surface tracks serving the West Side waterfront in the 1930s as a means of eliminating grade crossings and the attendant hazards of frieght trains running down active urban avenues. However, with the demise of shipping from the Hudson River piers in Manhattan and the rise of trucking in the 1950s and 1960s, the facility rapidly declined in use and all train service was eventually ended by 1980. Thus, the High Line stood as a symbol of industrial decline for over 20 years, becoming a target of efforts to completely demolish it and eliminate the easement rights it embodied so the space could be privatized. In other words, the High Line had no future, which should sound familiar, since around that time the conventional wisdom was that all of urban America, as a concept and as a group of places, had little to no future itself. I exaggerate only slightly.

It took a railroad enthusiast with the quixotic and ultimately unsuccessful notion of restoring rail service to save the High Line early on until a small, but determined group of citizens joined together and saw in it an opportunity to create a unique urban amenity. Thus, a structure left for dead and surely seen as a symbol of blight and decay was transformed into something that adds to its surrounding neighborhood and has become a focus for new investment, even to the point where the Whitney Museum of American Art is expanding with a new, Renzo Piano-designed building directly adjacent to the southern terminus of the High Line at Gansevoort Street. From any perspective, the High Line is a remarkable achievement for its organizers working through Friends of the High Line, the City of New York (which remains the structure's owner), and for James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the LU designers who were chosen to bring the High Line to life. The High Line's take-away, perhaps, is that people who care about their own cities, towns, and neighborhoods and what happens in them might do well to contemplate what they presently see as physical negatives -- abandoned buildings, structures, and areas -- and consider them as opportunities to enhance their surroundings. Yes, we're looking at you, Old Northern Avenue Bridge in Boston...

Blog Post Script: The walk from 23rd Street down to the end of the High Line in the West Village gave your correspondent the opportunity to stop by and snap a photo in front of 555 Hudson Street, the house immortalized by Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Photo 9: In front of 555 Hudson Street.