In the 1930’s the High Line in New York City allowed freight trains to traverse the west side of the island above the street and out of the way of automobile and pedestrian traffic. This was a welcomed urban renewal project in that freight train and street traffic accidents had become so prevalent on the west side of the city that New Yorkers dubbed 10th Avenue Death Avenue (the city’s first attempt at remedying the situation was to put a man on a horse and have this man ride in front of each train waving a red flag). The High Line was in operation from 1934 to 1980. After the last train was removed from the tracks, the High Line sat unused for 29 years.
On June 9th, 2009, the High Line was reincarnated brilliantly, in the form of a public park that stretches from Gansevoort Street to 20th Street. The High Line in its park form was conceived by landscape architect James Corner’s Field Operations and architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Entering the park from the Gansevoort Street end one walks up a long stairway that slices between massive steel girders. At the top of the stair waits a harmonious melding of industry and nature. The precast concrete paving strips narrow as they move away from you allowing vegetation to grow between them. This design move creates the feeling that the hardscape is receding away from you and that nature is advancing toward you. Some of the paving strips emerge from the ground plane and transform into Ipe seating areas. To mark the transition between hardscape and planted areas, the edge of the paving strip is lifted or bulges slightly. The change in elevation is only an inch or so, but as you walk your foot perceives this change and you are kept from wandering into the planted area. No railing is needed.
It is fitting, I suppose, that the High Line is more about moving you through than it is about holding you in place. There are a few moments, however, where the path widens and opens up into a place to gather. The most successful of these is the amphitheater-like space that hangs over the intersection of 10th Avenue and 14th Street. While seated in this space you are oriented down toward the intersection which is visible through huge sheets of glass that have been placed between the existing steel structural members. Through the glass, cars appear seemingly out of nowhere from underneath you and speed away. The steel lattice work, above the glass, screens the cars from view after they pass so they seem to disappear just as suddenly as they had appeared. It’s a fascinating perspective of urban traffic that displays how rapidly cars actually move within the city.
In its creation of successful places and implementation of clever design gestures the High Line proves that urban preservation and urban renewal are not mutually exclusive ideas. It is possible to save pieces of the city and still create new ones. Entire blocks do not need to be razed and rebuilt in the name of progress. Old structures do not need to be saved just because they are old. Cities evolve in a meaningful way when designers and city officials take the time and put in the effort to carefully select which urban elements to purge, which to keep, and which to transform.