I recently visited the High Line in New York for the first time. I have been referencing this urban regeneration project for years, have seen many photos, but had never experienced it myself. Living in New York in the late 1990s, my building was located only a block away from the old elevated freight railway line, but in those days it did not register for me at all.
So it was with great anticipation that I approached the 34th Street entrance, to the newest (and final) section of the High Line. This is the area where they have let the park express itself in its truest form, much as it was when the project was first mooted. Self seeded trees, weedy grasses poking between steel railway tracks, it charmed me from the first moment.
That first walk in the morning light was a revelation, moving from spontaneous vegetation and minimal intervention, through striking contrasting swathes of native grasses, flowering shrubs and low ground covers; on to a shady pathway of grey birches,
sheltering more vulnerable ground covers below; and into a wider zone of a grassy swathe, random placements of contemporary sculpture, and a wonderful stacked timber arrangement, part amphitheatre, part bleachers.
Then it winds on further downtown, a portal onto one of the cross streets allows the seated visitors to gaze through a glazed panel onto the cars passing below. The area opens up and closes again. Verdant forested path becomes wide pedestrian zone with seating under trees and climbing plants on steel frames. After passing under a building, there is a restful zone of timber loungers, movable along steel railway tracks, facing a paved area lightly washed with shallow bubbling water.
On and on it continues, ending peacefully in a treed zone adjacent to the new Whitney Museum.
Along the way the planting morphs and changes: from shady, to exposed; prairie planting to woodland; a broad sweep of lawn; intermittent benches projecting out of the paved surfaces. Some seating in the midst of it all, some tucked in little dead end sections, much as a locomotive might have once shunted back in overnight. Sections of original steel ornamental railing intersperse with exposed aggregate blades of paving, intersected with original railway lines and sleepers,
and always, in and amongst them, lovely little vignettes of planting contrast.
Sculptural pieces interject from time to time: a steel framed viewing window; a Louise Bourgeois-like spidery telescope peering out to Lady Liberty; a grid arrangement of yellow heads set amongst pink fine grassy heads amongst other pieces.
It lived up to expectation, in all its changing beauty as summer growth faded into intermittent autumn shades.
The only question I was left with though was like the tale of the goose that laid the golden egg. As we walked up and down a number of times at different times of day, we were constantly reminded of the legacy that this greening of the urban environment has brought to its surrounds. Proximity to the High Line has meant real estate values have improved, most obviously in the buildings which clearly interconnect with and take a “borrowed view” from the greenery. This has led to more development, and more.
At various points, the High Line is hemmed in by scaffolding on both sides.
Jackhammers, cranes and reversing trucks provide the ambient noise (though I did hear frogs, perhaps an artificial soundtrack), perhaps much as with most of the background noise of the city. At the North end, a new huge, mega neighbourhood Hudson Yards, is being built over the old railway yards, and things will change.
Already the horticulturists are having to adjust and refine the planting to cope with additional shade and wind shear.
Nonetheless, it is an extraordinary feature in the midst of a city of concrete monoliths. A chance meeting over the weekend with a group of volunteers planting out thousands of crocus bulbs in the lawn area, was confirmation of the community engagement this new urban park has engendered.
The following day you couldn’t spot where they’d punctured the lawn, but come snowmelt time, there will be another sign of the seasonal change and the excitement that nature can bring. The High Line provides a significant swathe of green down the West side of lower Manhattan: a place to walk, to sit and talk, meet, take children to enjoy nature, breathe and just enjoy being in one of the most exciting cities in the world, in nature. I loved it and look forward to visiting again, in another season, to see its changing beauty.