Paradise Lost

When the High Line above Manhattan's West Side turns into a park, a secret world will disappear

Wandering Manhattan's elevated High Line railroad in its long-abandoned, grassy state is sort of like trekking through the wild, overgrown forest of a mythic tale. Obstacles, be they dense shrubs or barbed wire, appear at inopportune moments, and unexpected pockets of wonder, like bursts of Queen Anne's lace and graffiti, pepper the journey. Twenty-odd years of disuse created this fanciful world, winding through apartment buildings and over bustling streets 30 feet above Manhattan, from the Jacob K. Javits Center to the meatpacking district.

For years, the High Line was threatened by the wrecking ball, as developers greedily eyed the area. But in 1999 a group of neighbors banded together, hoping to preserve the wild space by turning it into a park. Their sweat paid off this summer, with a pledge of $18 million in federal funding and a personal visit from Senator Clinton, who hiked the railroad in a navy blue pantsuit. While it's a relief that the structure avoided demolition, the railway's now endangered wilderness is what inspired Creative Time's art exhibit "The Plain of Heaven," on display through November 20 at 820 Washington Street. Many of the plants and artifacts now flourishing there won't likely find a home on a polished walkway, made for yipping terriers and baby strollers. "That's one of the central challenges of the High Line," says Joshua David, a founder of Friends of the High Line. "How do you make it open to the public, make it something everyone wants to do, and at the same time preserve the qualities that make it so compelling and almost magical?" The designers say they want the park to reflect the structure's current environment. But in the end, this treetop world, as we know it, will disappear.

It took the High Line years to reach its current incarnation. Railroad and government officials agreed in 1929 to build the elevated tracks, as part of a plan to stem more than 50 years of brutal civilian deaths, caused by freight trains barreling down Manhattan's West Side at street level. Following construction, the trains, after reaching the city, dipped below ground level but eventually rose into the air. The lofted tracks continued into the second stories of adjacent factories and warehouses, easily dumping their cargo of milk, produce, and manufactured goods. But not long after, the railroads went into decline. The High Line idled in 1980, and the lack of activity and isolation allowed the habitat to develop. "People who care about the High Line project should resist the urge to trespass—it hinders the project," David says. "It's still private property, and it's not open to the public. Trespassers are subject to prosecution."

The High Line, before and after: Looking east on 30th Street and Eleventh Avenue, April 1957 (bottom); Joel Sternfeld’s Looking East on 30th Street on a Morning in May, 2000 (top).
The High Line, before and after: Looking east on 30th Street and Eleventh Avenue, April 1957 (bottom); Joel Sternfeld’s Looking East on 30th Street on a Morning in May, 2000 (top).

But people have still visited, and some artists have left their mark, including some of the High Line's true treasures, located inside the station house abutting Chelsea Market. Shrubs grow protectively around the entrance, behind haphazard piles of wood scraps and stone. Inside, nearly a dozen metal sculptures perch near the track's edge, ranging from two feet in height to twice that size. The light and graceful works are composed of thin, curved slices of metal welded together, and their rusted reddish brown blends with discarded metal scraps littering the ground. One smaller piece resembles a human being; a larger one looks like a galloping horse from one angle, a lunging snake from another. David is currently trying to track down the identity of the artist, to speak with him or her before removing and storing the sculptures.

Just beyond the artwork sit four old-fashioned, turquoise turnstiles, possibly left from a television shoot; the High Line accommodated only freight trains and had no passenger entrances.

The artwork may be in the center of the station house, but it's the walls that burst with spray paint. The length of the High Line has been graced with graffiti, but here the walls ring with gray on baby blue, puffy yellow initials, laser reds, and dusty blues, all merging into words and drawings. One throw-up, spelled ZAEN, in green and white on a salmon backdrop, emits an intense energy, warming the concrete building.

More graffiti shows up on two billboard-like barriers stretched across the tracks and edged with barbed wire. One displays the word "ANGER" in bold black letters, accented with pink and yellow. The other side features the freakishly large yellow face of Jesus (or maybe it's just some bearded dude). And a nearly life-size rendering of the High Line itself—including the rails, green grass, and Manhattan skyline backdrop—gives one pause. Mayor Bloomberg has made clear his feelings on graffiti, and it's doubtful the park will retain even a smidgen. Documentation is probably the most we can hope for.

The High Line can be divided into a number of geographies, each with its own distinct atmosphere. Certain areas resemble woods, others wetlands or prairies. But there is one constant throughout the structure—the two parallel tracks. They lend direction and, through their original purpose, define the space. Some of the tracks will be included in the new site, said David, who is working with the designers and architects. But first, the tracks will be ripped up, so the underlying drainage system can be repaired. Then, for safety reasons, only some will be reinstalled.

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