The High Line

The High Line

This text is part of Parks’ Historical Signs Project and can be found posted within the park.

What was here before?

In the mid-19th century, the New York Central Railroad operated freight trains at street-level that serviced a vibrant mixed-use West Side waterfront corridor of meat and produce markets, light and heavy industry, residential tenements, and rowhouses. By 1910 more than 500 pedestrians had been killed by these trains, and Tenth Avenue was known as “Death Avenue.”

To alleviate the dangerous conditions, an improvement plan and transit commission directive stipulated the removal of street-level crossings. This led to the construction of the West Side Elevated Line (known later as the High Line) which stretched from West 34th Street to Spring Street terminal and was fully operational by 1934. Many industrial and residential buildings were leveled to create the rail easement. The High Line passed through commercial buildings such as the National Biscuit Company factory (today Chelsea Market) and Bell Laboratories (today West Beth Artists Housing) and included cargo off-loading docks.

A rise in commercial trucking and rapidly diminishing westside waterfront industry led to the decline of the rail line. In the 1960s, the section from Spring to Bank Streets was removed, and the elevated line ceased operation in 1980. In the early 1980s, Chelsea resident Peter Obletz temporarily brokered rights to the abandoned rail easement and formed the West Side Rail Line Foundation whose mission was to preserve the abandoned structure. Despite calls to remove it altogether, the remaining High Line—perceived by many as a safety hazard and eyesore—survived intact until the stretch from Bethune to Gansevoort Street was torn down in 1990-91 despite efforts by the West Villagers for Responsible Development to save this portion for reuse. By then the High Line was under the jurisdiction of CSX Transportation, a leading rail consortium.

How did this site become a park?

This area of Manhattan has some of the lowest percentages of parkland per capita of any district in the City, and in 1935 NYC Parks sought to rectify the lack of recreational space by issuing a plan to convert vacant lots beneath the High Line for playgrounds from Horatio to Morton Streets. Two were built, but in 1937 the lease of the properties by NYC Parks from the New York Central Railroad was voided, and the play spaces were removed.

Over time the abandoned tracks became a naturalized meadow of plants seeded by birds and windborne organic matter. In 1999, as CSX issued a request for proposals to reuse the abandoned rail line, two citizens—Joshua David and Robert Hammond—enamored with its industrial beauty formed the Friends of the High Line with the intent of converting it to a public park. After four years of intensive advocacy the City approved this conversion, gaining support from formerly opposed West Chelsea property owners by up-zoning their development rights adjacent to the structure. An open design competition elicited 726 proposals.

With support from the City, the Friends of the High Line was sanctioned as the nonprofit partner to support the creation and care of this new public amenity. James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro were the lead design firms, and Dutch planting specialist Piet Oudolf advised on the variegated landscape of more than 200 plant species. Their bold design acknowledges the High Line’s historic past and its transitional phase in which nature reclaimed the structure and introduces contemporary elements and a mix of “hyper-social and intimate spaces.”

Hardy native plant species were selected to create the feel of the wild, creating a rich palette of hues changing with the seasons. Certain structural areas were highlighted as special features, such as the amphitheater hovering over Tenth Avenue at West 17th Street. Original train tracks were reinserted to recall the High Line’s former use, while the distinctive cast-stone floor planks also suggest past rail use. The first phase of the new park, from Gansevoort to West 20th Street, opened in June 2009, and instantly became a premier tourist attraction, while also spurring high-end development in the West Chelsea corridor. When fully opened by 2019, the park wrapped around the Hudson Yards to West 34th Street and included a spur at West 30th Street with a plinth that hosts rotating sculptures of considerable prominence, in addition to a changing program of other art commissions, events, and amenities.

The repurposed High Line connects three neighborhoods along Manhattan’s West Side—the Meatpacking District, Chelsea, and Hudson Yards. City and State officials broke ground in February 2022 for a pedestrian connector to Penn Station that is slated to open in spring 2023. In partnership with New York State and Brookfield Properties, the Moynihan Connector will link the High Line’s 30th Street Spur to Moynihan Train Hall via the public space in Manhattan West.

The connector’s design consists of a pair of 600-foot-long bridges that both complement and contrast with the existing High Line structure. The Woodlands Bridge, running along 30th Street, features deep soil beds allowing for a lush green ribbon of trees that will envelop the visitor from the urban streetscape below. The Timber Bridge is a Warren truss made of sustainably sourced wood that will run above Dyer Avenue into Magnolia Court, the public plaza at Manhattan West, with steel decking and bronze handrails linking the design of both bridges.

This new construction is a joint effort between Empire State Development Corporation, Brookfield Properties, and the High Line, and intended to create safer and better access to transportation, cultural institutions, and other public spaces on the West Side of Manhattan.

Directions to The High Line

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