One Track Mind

Chelsea Group Works to Save an Abandoned Rail Line   

"The pictures are the best arguments for taking it down," said longtime Chelsea resident Dorothea Macalduff, who recalled that hundreds of homes (640, plus one church and two schools) were torn down to build the High Line. Opinions ranged widely. The High Line was variously an "interesting and important window to the city's industrial past" and "a one-of-a-kind monument to the city's railroad history," or an "eyesore" that makes neighbors feel "like we're standing behind a prison bar." Mark Kingsley, who once lived at 95 Horatio Street, where in 1991 developer Rockrose Realty tore the southernmost legs off the High Line to build what he called "cookie-cutter crap" housing, praised the old railroad. "Blight," he said, "is a point of reference that is personal to everyone."

The High Line was built in the 1930s as part of the West Side Improvement, an epic New York City endeavor that included the West Side Highway. Uptown, the tracks were covered over and became part of Riverside Park. Downtown, an elevated portion replaced street-level freights that barreled up Eleventh and down Tenth avenues—a traffic nightmare that earned each street the name Death Avenue. On Tenth, horse-mounted riders with lanterns would precede trains, shouting warning to pedestrians. One of the last Tenth Avenue Cowboys to make the trip, in advance of a train hauling a load of oranges, was George Hayde on his horse Cyclone in the late 1930s.

The High Line as it bends around 14th Street and heads north, from the meatpacking district to Chelsea
photo: Sylvia Plachy
The High Line as it bends around 14th Street and heads north, from the meatpacking district to Chelsea

The debate over the High Line's future is long-standing. It is regularly presented to architecture students as a problem to solve. A slide show and lecture on "The Fight to Save Manhattan's Forgotten Railroad" was held in 1984 by the now defunct West Side Rail Line Development Foundation; earlier this month, a cocktail-and-caviar fundraiser was held for the same cause, this time by Friends of the High Line. Dreams for the abandoned track—including both its demolition and resurrection—have been around so long, they too, are tinged with history.

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