Immediately after its gates swung open in June 2009, the High Line became one of America's favorite urban parks. But a recent survey by Travel & Leisure shows that its popularity has gone truly global, ranking it #10 on a list of the world's most popular landmarks.
The High Line is a linear park built atop an abandoned freight rail line that floats 30 feet above street level and it offers some of the most surprising -- and stunning --
views of Manhattan. But there's another aspect of this extraordinary place that visitors love: the High Line tells a story. Block by block it meanders past former factories, warehouses and tenements; passes by old Indian trails and Astor family farmland; threads its way between church, prison, and school. Along the way it offers up new views of historic piers and railroad terminals, famous skyscrapers and new architectural gems that are redefining New York's ever-changing skyline.
Today this "park in the sky" is Manhattan's grandest parapet, and from north to south, east to west, it puts the city and its long, colorful history on stage. There are, it was famously, said, "eight million stories in the Naked City." Following are a just a few that can be found along the High Line. For many more see my book On the High Line: Exploring America's Most Original Urban Park, with a Preface by Rick Darke.
Photo by Scott Mlyn The High Line after dark offers awe-inspiring glimpses of the spires atop three buildings completed in the 21st century, each of which has a story. The 1,000-foot mast of the New York Times headquarters contains radiometers that gather and transmit solar data to a computer system which controls the positioning of the window shades throughout the building. Bank of America Tower, decreed the greenest building in Manhattan, has an ornamental spire with 368 LED floodlights that constantly change color. Its neighbor the Conde Nast building has been recognized for its use of solar and fuel-cell technology; its 300-foot mast is used to support TV and radio broadcasters, and it too features colored lights. Every night these buildings join together in a sensational light show.
Photo by Rick Darke There are 100,000 perennials and grasses on the High Line, but unlike many gardens, the plants are not deadheaded in the fall. An essential aspect of Piet Oudolf's planting design is the presence of seed heads in winter, and these dried, multi-form structures play an important role in the distinctive High Line landscape. The untouched plants also provide food and habitat for wildlife throughout the winter. But this means a big job for the gardening staff each spring, when all the spent flowers must be cut back to make room for new growth. Dozens of volunteers join the annual Spring Cutback, generating tons of compost that is donated to community gardens in the area or transported to the Fresh Kills Compost Site on Staten Island.
Photo by Annik La Farge Between 29th - 30th Streets sits one of the largest mail-processing facilities in the country. You can see the outlines of the bricked-up freight entrance in the northwest corner, where as many as 8,000 mail trains a year passed into the Morgan General Mail Facility after traveling down the High Line and across Tenth Avenue on a special "spur." But this place wasn't always devoted to mail; in the 19th century one of Manhattan's first railway stations stood here, operated the Hudson River Railroad. The first passenger to use the station was Abraham Lincoln, on his way to Washington, DC for his inauguration as President. Four years later, on April 25, 1865, Lincoln's funeral train passed through on its westward journey to Springfield, Illinois.
photo by Scott Mlyn The High Line runs parallel to the Hudson River, for centuries America's grandest gateway. The stately, rusting arch of Pier 54 recalls the glory days of transatlantic luxury liners steaming into New York harbor, greeted by ebullient, cheering crowds. But that was not the scene on April 18, 1912, when Cunard's liner Carpathia docked at Pier 54 to drop off survivors of the RMS Titanic, which had been expected at the White Star Line's Pier 59 (today the driving range of the Chelsea Piers golf club). In May 1915, the Lusitania departed from Pier 54 on its way to Liverpool; seven days later it was torpedoed by a German U-boat, an event that mobilized public opinion in support of the United States' entry into World War I.
photo by Scott Mlyn The Spears Building was built in 1888 by the Kinney Tobacco Company, part of the giant American Tobacco Company which, until it was broken up by antitrust laws, controlled more than ninety percent of the American market. In 1892 a five-alarm fire gutted the entire factory and reportedly destroyed forty million cigarettes. The headline in the Times intoned: "One Fiend Beats Another." In 1931 the eastern part of the factory was demolished to make way for the High Line; the windows behind the park's "seating steps" are the former loading docks that connected the building - which in later years became a furniture factory - to the railroad. Today the building is a condominium.
Photo by Scott Mlyn Traffic has always been an event in New York, but bad as it is today, it's hard to imagine the pandemonium of the 19th century. In 1879 the Times described a particularly gnarly jam that included "four-horse teams, hacks, coupes, trucks, drays, butcher carts, passenger stages...grocers' and hucksters' wagons [and] two-wheeled 'dog carts.'" On the West Side, to make matters worse, freight trains ran at grade along the street. A man on horseback - the "Tenth Avenue Cowboy" - preceded each locomotive, warning pedestrians with a red flag by day and a red lantern by night. Still, so many people were killed in the chaos that Tenth Avenue became known as Death Avenue. The High Line pays tribute to New York's traffic obsession with an outdoor amphitheatre that permits visitors to sit and endlessly watch the traffic as it rumbles up the former Death Avenue toward midtown.
photo by Rick Darke In 1856 a writer for Harper's Monthly lamented that "New York is never the same city for a dozen years together. A man born in New York forty years ago finds nothing, absolutely nothing, of the New York he knew." The High Line is the perfect perch from which to observe the city's ever-changing skyscape. Pictured here is Frank Gehry's stunning IAC headquarters, also known as "the sail building." If you walk around it you'll find that the building is like a piece of sculpture that rewards every vantage point with a delightful new form. It makes the perfect answer to the unhappy Harper's man.
The High Line attracts tons of wildlife, from bugs and crickets to butterflies and bees. But birds play the greatest role in its story. The Hudson River is a major migratory corridor and some 300 species - songbirds, raptors, waterfowl, shorebirds - pass overhead each year. One reason the abandoned rail line became such a bountiful wild garden is because birds carried seeds here from all over the country, both on their feathers and in their droppings. In his plan for the High Line landscape designer Piet Oudolf included many of the prairie grasses and perennials that first came here courtesy of birds. Today you can spot countless birds in the park, but if you get lucky you might catch the magnificent peregrine falcon that has made the Drug Enforcement Agency building at 16th Street its unofficial home (center image). Page Collage by Lorraine Ferguson Photo top left (bird): Juan Valentin Photo lower left (orange bugs): Rick Darke Photo top right (bees): Tom Dyja Photo Middle (falcon): Annik La Farge Photo Middle Right (couple with pigeon): Juan Valentin Photo Lower right (bugs, butterfly): Juan Valentin
Photo by Rick Darke During remediation of the old rail bed and construction of the High Line park all the original rail ties placed here by the New York Central Railroad in the early 1930s were removed and tagged. Many were later replaced in their original locations, to evoke the park's history as a working railroad. Rick Darke's 2005 photograph of the wild High Line shows how the "steel rails provide the landscape's organizing motif as they run through a spontaneous garden of low grasses, chives, and dwarf bearded iris."