High Lines, Upward Trends

07/22/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Some days you just feel happy. Not in a cosmic sense of well-being, but in the moment. As in, I'm alive and healthy and living in New York City, it's a beautiful spring day, and it doesn't get much cooler than this.

These moments usually come when I'm riding my bike along the Hudson River bike path that extends from Battery Park all the way to Dyckman Street in Inwood, although I've never personally ventured beyond the George Washington Bridge. In the dozen or so years since the city began opening the Manhattan riverfront to city residents, I've learned that tooling along the river, with its piers, parks and playgrounds along with other bikers, skaters and walkers, is one of the true blessings of New York City life.

And with this month's opening of the Highline, a park built on the remnants of a 1-1/2 mile stretch of elevated railroad track in lower Manhattan, there's yet another vista to explore. A park on an elevated train platform may not sound very enticing, but I decided to see for myself. While riding towards Chelsea I turned off the bike path at 20th Street and crossed the West Side Highway and climbed the stairs at the park's midpoint. Entrances also run along the avenue to Gansevoort Street.

What greets you is not a profusion of green, but a quirky, gritty little park that captures the feel of the city, while also providing a haven from it. The Great Lawn of Central Park it's not and some visitors have found it underwhelming. Threading through the gray asphalt walkway are small sections of railroad track, with patches of roadbed sprouting weeds and wildflowers of the same variety that have always grown along the tracks. The effect is one of ordered chaos--weedy, wild and low-scale, rather than lush and shady. But its sparseness has an appeal.

On the day I was there, hundreds of people strolled the park, which snakes over and along 10th Avenue, and disappears into a tunnel that runs through the red-brick building that houses the Chelsea Market. Young and elderly, mothers and fathers pushing baby strollers, people eating lunch, lots of men with cameras, and at least one guy working on his laptop strolled, or sat on the benches and chaise-lounges that line the walkway.

Yet it didn't seem crowded and you felt a sense of camaraderie with the people who'd come to check out this new city venue. One woman, a fashion journalist from the East Side, said she had chosen the Highline over the beach, and was delighted to find herself sitting next to a woman who had brought her three year-old daughter to have lunch with her husband.

Standing thirty feet above 10th Avenue, the Highline offers views of its small shops, parking lots and city traffic, and of the West Side Highway with its rushing traffic, Frank Gehry's Jell-O-cube-like office building, and the gargantuan expanse of Chelsea Piers, with snippets of the Hudson River peeking through.

While the Highline is a park, like the city, it's not quiet. Traffic rushes past below, and from the partly-finished buildings draped in safety netting nearby comes the clang and hammering of construction work. The city plans to expand Highline north to 34th Street.

Mel Schuster, 77, a retired book author, travel writer, tour escort, and former host of a classical music radio show, who lives on 10th Street, sat reading on a bench across from the Highline's tiny amphitheater with huge windows overlooking Tenth Avenue. "It's not spectacular, but it's quite nice," he said. "I'm happy that it's here, and I'm sure as they develop it, it will get much nicer."

But most people were much more enthusiastic, like Ingrid Risop, 73, and Rolf Wittich, 83, who live on the East Side, and had walked all the way across town. "It's fantastic," Wittich said. "I love it."

Wittich, who is retired from a company that sold products for the tool and die industry and also runs a farm upstate, moved out of the city in 1969, discouraged by the crime and decay he saw. He returned seven years ago and is pleased by what he sees now.

"I'm really full of pride about New York. It's been a big turnaround."

"The Highline is part of it," Risop said.

I had to agree.