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New York’s High Line and The Psychology of Urban Spaces

It seems like it’s been raining forever in New York, but recently, the showers stopped long enough for me to try out the city’s latest amenity: The High Line park running along Tenth Avenue. Rising 30 feet into the air, the park has been created out of an old railway trestle built in the 1930s to carry freight from the old Pennsylvania Yards on West 34th Street to the Meatpacking district laying 1.45 miles to the south. In its current configuration, the park, which takes its cues from a similar project in Paris called the Promenade Plantée, extends nine blocks, from Gansevoort Street to West 17th street; eventually, it will continue north as West 30th Street, if not all the way to Javits Center.

I must confess here that my visit was motivated by more than just civic curiosity. In the 1980s, I used to work near the High Line, back when it was an abandoned stretch of rusting steel, sheltering transexual hookers as they plied their trade to motorists heading for the Lincoln Tunnel. I’d often stop to admire its poetry of riveted steel, wondering what the view from up there must be like. Later, in the early ’90s, news that then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani wanted to tear the High Line down was quit upsetting to me, as I’d assumed something of a proprietary interest in it. I was just as relieved a few years later when a group of concerned citizens, inspired in part by photographer Joel Sternfeld’s wonderful book, Walking The High Line, rallied to save the structure, and convince the newly elected mayor, Michael Bloomberg to transform it into its current form.

Washington GrasslandThat was in 1999, and the result, designed by a team led by landscape architects James Corner Field Operations with architectural firm of the moment Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the High Line is a true marvel, a modern-day hanging garden of Babylon with a post-apocalyptic touch of Life After People thrown in for good measure. However, I must admit to having mixed feelings once I got up there. Buildings may define a city, but public spaces offer glimpses into the urban soul. In this respect, the High Line is unable to lie: It throws into high relief the preening narcissism of New York in the aughties.

This isn’t to say that the park itself lacks in charm or elegance, far from it. In fact, as a work of architecture, it’s brilliant. Everything about the design is based on the horizontal dynamic of the original structure: Segments of the old rail bed have been left intact, or put on artful display. More importantly, a kind of concrete planking follows the direction of the old track. Besides giving you somewhere to walk, these elongated pavers define other elements of the scheme, abruptly giving way to plantings of wildflowers and grasses, for example, or cantilevering upwards to create benches and drinking fountains.

But if the High Line is meant to evoke a sort of linear forum, it also suggests something more. At certain points, the park passes under one building and through another: respectively, the new Standard Hotel straddling the viaduct at West 13th Street, and the High Line Building rising one block north—a high-rise, actually, shacked atop an existing brick warehouse. Together, the two edifices create a pair of triumphal arches for the procession of tourists and other denizens early-21st century Gotham—people working in finance and fashion, marketing and the media—streaming below. There’s even a Coliseum, albeit at a vastly reduced scale, just past the Chelsea Market: An amphitheater made of cedar boards leading down to a panoramic picture window cut into one of the trestle’s bulkheads. Instead of gladiatorial games, visitors are treated to the spectacle of traffic hurtling up Tenth Avenue; with any luck they’ll witness a collision between taxis, and verbal combat in Urdu or Pashto. The only thing missing from this crypto-Imperial scheme is a Trajan’s Column depicting the city’s poor and artists being frog-marched to the Outer Boroughs.

Now, of course, I’m exaggerating, but not all the much. As I noted above, parks, piazzas and the like really do offer snapshots into the psychology of cities at certain moments in their histories, and nowhere is that more the case, perhaps, than here in New York. For example, Central Park and its Brooklynite cousin Prospect Park reflect the noblesse oblige of 19th-century civic fathers offering the working masses a leafy respite from their squalid tenement lives. And while we continue to mourn the loss of the Twin Towers, the sterile windswept plaza that once occupied their base clearly demonstrated a mindset that had basically given up on the possibilities of cities, or at least, Jane Jacobs’s notion of them.
More recently, the Promenade at Battery Park City offers testament to the late 20th Century’s renewed faith in urban living, if only as a cover for gentrification.

Sundeck Water Feature and PreserveBut the High Line is somewhat different—it’s a unabashed celebration of gentrification, or more specifically, New York’s transformation by globalism. For instance, while the High Line offers soothing patches of sorrel and lupines alive with butterflies, the real hothouse flowers here are the examples of starchitecture by Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel blocking the views to the Hudson. Just to the East of High Line, hard by the aforementioned Standard Hotel, lies an old warehouse topped by a glass geodesic barnacle. It’s the penthouse of Diane Von Fusternberg, as several people around me noted quite loudly. Thus an afternoon constitutional suddenly devolved into a tour bus tour of Beverly Hills.

I’m no nostalgist; I know perfectly that New York is a far better and more livable than it was when I first came here almost 30 years ago. I’m certainly delighted that the High Line still stands, and that Mayor Giuliani, an enemy of both urbanity and urbaneness if there ever was one, was thwarted in his ambition to destroy the thing. Curmudgeonly observations aside, ambulating down the restored High Line is a delight, if not quite the adventure Sternfeld must have experienced when he took the pictures for his book. And therein lies my problem. In opening it up the High Line to the public, its designers obviously thought long and hard about its history and presence in the city’s fabric. But they could never maintain the mystery of what I’d once imagined about the place from the streets below.

Photos: (top) Washington Grasslands, between Little West 12th Street and West 13th Street, looking South. (bottom) Sundeck Water Feature and Preserve, between West 14th Street and West 15th Street, looking South. Both photographs by Iwan Baan © 2009.

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.

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