Last month I visited The High Line for the first time. Beyond knowing that I was going to a relatively new elevated outdoor space, I really didn't know what to expect or least of all, why I'd keep thinking about what life must have been like in that neighborhood nearly a century ago.
The High Line and its environs today can best be described in one word -- visual. The park is landscaped to look very natural and somewhat overgrown. The park also was designed with multiple levels and several glass enclosed overlooks to the street below. I felt like I was a passenger looking out the window in a train as I watched the people, streetlights, and vehicles below move in predictable order similar to the automated factories that once reigned here. Today the world is sunny and I m sharing this window with families, couples and children without the squealing of train brakes or deafening whistles of an earlier time. Everything about the park blends in beautifully with the area's newly built high rise glass and steel luxury hotels, elegant boutiques, art galleries and chic restaurants creating a seamless knitted Jacquard pattern creating a unified experience.
The High Line wasn't always the perfect blend of nature and neighborhood that we see today. It was and remains an ongoing narrative inspired by its past and rescued and reinvented like a sad lost soul who all of a sudden finally understands the meaning of the phrase, "I am not, yet I will be." Mysteriously hidden above the street for decades, grew an untamed natural wilderness regarded by almost everyone as useless and not worth saving. Well, almost everyone.
As the neighborhood around the future High Line was becoming hyper gentrified, eyes eventually turned upwards towards a dark shadowy out of place relic from an earlier time now almost entirely forgotten in this newly revitalized district of high fashion boutiques, posh restaurants and trendy bars. But with the help of several visionary and influential community advocates, great planners and designers and good fortune, a new role for the High Line was conceived and became a reality. The High Line's popularity grew so quickly and not just locally, but nationally and internationally. It's now hard to imagine that the verdant world above the street that we know as The High Line, not only didn't exist until a few years ago, but was threatened without ever coming into existence at all.
The old freight line was physically in a position to be the area's main attraction but only if the planners and designers understood both the neighborhood and the importance of getting the new park "visually right." The design had to be structurally and physically beautiful. The High Line also had to appear natural and yet at the same time, incorporate some of its railroad history into the plan. This way, visitors now and in the future, could at least imagine that before there were flowers, gelato and sundecks, freight trains and factories were once the order of the day in this section of New York City. Also in this way, the High Line could become something new while not losing all of its former identity as a historic freight line.
While looking beyond the old freight line's obvious condition and landscape, its designers managed to successfully reinterpret its predominantly auditory past into a present day visual masterpiece. The visual impact created for today's tastes is just as ubiquitous as the industrial sounds were a century ago for the people who lived or worked in this area.
The world that surrounded the High Line of nearly a century ago was a very auditory world that constantly bombarded the lives of its people much like people living today who receive a disproportionate amount of visual stimuli. It was a world of constant cacophony of the vibrating blare of fog horns in the distance, the four beat gait of horses walking along Belgian blocks, church bells, the squeal and whistle of the trolley, early morning can milk deliveries, newspaper boys shouting the day and evening headlines and the loud sounds of the freight trains and the world within the factories that depended upon them.
Today the sound of screeching train brakes and the hissing sounds of machines, metal clanking against metal, and blades grinding has been replaced by an artistic sylvan delight as durable and varied as Irish linen interspersed with overhanging leaves resembling fine green silk taffeta umbrellas. In late spring and early summer, everything in the park is in full bloom and there are bursts of white, violet, and yellow flowers resembling delicate bows and intricately carved gemstones serving as dinner plates for the bees while ensuring their own existence.
The High Line's popularity grew so quickly not just locally but nationally and internationally, that it is now hard to imagine that this verdant world not only didn't exist until a few years ago, but was threatened without ever coming into existence at all.
It's also interesting how the Chelsea Market has also incorporated and retained some of the neighborhood's industrial past. The market used to be the former Nabisco factory and there is plenty of memorabilia there from the factory in the form of vintage tins, photographs, original murals and even a fountain made of discarded drill bits and original pipe material. A lot has changed and a lot has been left unchanged at the Chelsea market. It's no longer an industrial bakery but its upscale food offerings draw gourmets from everywhere in both the U.S. and globally. The Chelsea Market, in addition to acknowledging the factory that produced the famous Oreo cookie has used the building's industrial beginnings as an inspiration rather than something to be forgotten and discarded like a misplaced shoe or glove desperately searching to find its lost self and a renewed purpose in the world once again. A New York without the High Line complementing and interacting with the buildings around it and vice versa, would not be the same because it is a one of a kind marvel of urban design blending the history of railroads and buildings into a unique park in the sky.