Elevated Urban Gardens

Laura Beltrán Villamizar recounts how an old piece of railroad running along the lower west side of Manhattan was brought back to life as an integral part of the city.

Once upon a time…

Built in 1847, the New York Central Railroad carried freight trains with textiles, fresh fruits, meat, and dairy products in the city. The rail lines were constructed at street-level which quickly proved dangerous for pedestrians and horses. The danger was such and the amount of daily casualties was so high that “West Side Cowboys” (horse riding guards) were hired to ensure greater safety along the rails. Casualties persisted and 10th Avenue became known to New Yorkers as the “Death Avenue”.

By 1934, the State and City of New York decided to elevate 13 miles of the rail lines, eliminating more than a 100 death-threatening crossings and intersections. For better or worse, the gradual disappearance of manufacturing businesses in lower Manhattan meant less business for the New York Central Railroad, hence less train traffic. Consequently, the entire traffic was put on hold and by 1980 the road had its last ride.

What happened after two decades of desolation in the New York High Line, nature can tell best, as it took over the entire road. The elevated landscape became a magnificent playground of wildflowers and grasses as small trees sprouted where the rails were once embedded. The whole structure became a newborn garden on top of urban ruins, making it a vast open space, covered by wildlife and waiting to be brought forth as a proper space in New York City’s urban jungle.

Pedestrians stroll along the High Line. With rapid gentrification, adjacent areas and buildings have increased in value and grown into an artistic and cultural hub.
Pedestrians stroll along the High Line. With rapid gentrification, adjacent areas and buildings have increased in value and grown into an artistic and cultural hub.

Green resurrection

Residents of the areas of Chelsea and West Side Yard – both crossed by the high line – along with a group of property owners lobbied to get the entire construction demolished. Since no alternative were being presented, plans to destroy the high line were advancing. However, when the city announced its plan to demolish the high line, two New Yorkers formed a non-profit organization named “Friends of The Highline” to promote ideas to preserve and boost the value of this public space.

Robert Hammond and Joshua David, founders of Friends of the Highline, pondered about a way to transform and avoid destroying the wild plants and green urban landscapes. Support from local communities to redevelop the High Line for public use grew tremendously. Support was so successful that Mayor Bloomberg and the New York City government decided to support and commit $50 million to construct the park.

The High Line Park was renovated as a series of visual episodes, almost becoming emotional encounters with nature. Joshua and Robert wanted designers and creators to translate these lapses of visual nature into a vivid green urban project. “The challenge was to keep this magical and undiscovered landscape in the middle of the city and at the same time allow hundreds of people up there” claims James Corner, the lead designer of the project. Indeed, the notion of its reconstruction is less evident than the feeling of its resurrection.

Benches have also been placed to let people relax and read a book in the middle of the bustling city of New York.
Benches have also been placed to let people relax and read a book in the middle of the bustling city of New York.

The experience

Elevated from the street, the High Line provides a unique experience and exceptional landscapes. Strolling along the wooden board walkway, one passes industrial, rusty surfaces of red and gray… apples, oranges and sweet fruits hang in specified areas and attract insects and hummingbirds, creating a habitat for nature to thrive again in this urban space, creating a sensation of wilderness.

Next to these natural attractions, the Friends of the High Line association organize cultural and artistic exhibitions with young artists and photographers which are being shown along the line. Hosting creative and artistic events has become a long-term developing plan for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, making it a catalyst and platform for urban artistic movements.

What one admires the most while experiencing the park’s historical value is the fact that the creators have taken an old piece of infrastructure without tearing it down or turning it into a piece of heritage and nostalgia. What they have done is provide an innovative and eco-friendly approach for gentrifying neighborhood, adding a green value to a metropolis like New York City and by so doing, adding the greenest chapter to the West Side Story – the High Line Story.

 


Writer/Photographer: Laura Beltrán Villamizar was Photo & Art Editor at Revolve Magazine. Click here to view her photo essay of the High Line. This article appeared in Revolve #7 Spring 2013, pages 48-50.