The High Line: Does Magic Happen Only in New York?

Even when a topic has been extensively analyzed and evaluated, it is always tempting to add one’s own perspective. The High Line in New York is such a topic. Praised by design critics and most of the media, the High Line has not been favored by many of my New Urbanist friends, which made my inclination to comment on it even stronger. Having visited the High Line for the first time last weekend, I couldn’t resist, and so yielded to the temptation, as Oscar Wilde once wisely recommended.

Influenced by enthusiastic media and not-so-enthusiastic friends’ opinions, I expected an over-designed, sleek installation, wasteful and extravagant in use of materials and display of high-tech tricks. What I found was a useful and well-designed piece of civic infrastructure, perfectly located and executed, while celebrating the city, its exuberance and its contrasts.

Rushing through a busy, Halloween-ready Chelsea Market and the bustling streets around it, my friend and I entered the park at 16th Street. It was an instantaneous relief to find ourselves high up on the High Line, taking in the city’s view with a breath of fresh air (or the illusion of it). The height (even at 30 feet) changes the perception of the city; at street level one looks first at the closest details – the sidewalk, the storefronts, the people – while up there the attention is instantaneously drawn to the expanse of the horizon and the river beyond.

At first glance the park is unassuming, even modest: subdued grayish colors, informal layout, grasses and young trees waiving in the breeze. It even looks unfinished in some places, matching this part of the city and its rough patches: parking lots, crumbling structures next to busy construction sites, directly adjacent to brand new, glitzy buildings – proof of the real estate rebirth credited often to the High Line.


Why does the High Line work so well?

First, the park is the right scale: using the dimensions of the elevated railroad, in some places meandering under buildings, it has the proportions of an intimate, comfortable street. The occasional expansions along the railroad trajectory create nodes of different activities and alleviate overcrowding.

The High Line is a great connector for an assembly of distinct neighborhoods in Lower Manhattan: the meatpacking district, Chelsea, The West Side Yard. Eventually it will reach the riverfront and join the existing pedestrian and bicycling route that runs through the Hudson River Greenway. The High Line makes all these areas psychologically and physically accessible through a unified walking promenade.

The park has successfully created possibilities for different experiences: quiet walking, city viewing, bird watching, coffee drinking, and just relaxing. A linear park can provide such multi-functionality better than a square or more enclosed urban space. My friend who has been living in Manhattan for more than a decade suggested that some of the famous and beloved NY squares suffer from “over programming.” There is always something going on: markets, festivals, bazaars, skating, etc. Such a comment may be against the common wisdom that “the more you have to do in a public space, the better,” but it struck me as aligned with Frederick Law Olmsted’s assertion in his report on Prospect Park that “a sense of enlarged freedom is to all, at all times, the most certain and the most valuable gratification afforded by a park” (as quoted by W. Rybszynski in “A Clearance in the Distance”). The High Line achieves a good balance between expanse of space and entertainment. It offers locations for various activities without eliminating the possibility for quiet roaming and contemplation.

The juxtaposition of nature and urbanity is always effective, and the landscape of the High Line successfully achieves a contrast to the manmade world below and around. Delicate birches, savannah grasses, and aromatic herbs, native and exotic plants – the overall assembly is delightful and unforced. Though these plants haven’t yet withstood the test of time, they look refreshing compared to the barren streets below.

Considering the high cost of its construction (more than $150 million), can the High Line serve as a prototype for adaptive reuse of old infrastructure in other places? Of course it could, but only in highly urban conditions. It cannot be a universal model – not because it is expensive or “high” design, but because its success requires a vibrant urban environment. The High Line is a catalyst for the city, but it works so well because of the city around it. Nevertheless, it has inspired cities like Chicago and St. Louis to start similar projects of infrastructure reclamation. Philadelphia is planning to transform the Reading Viaduct into a similar, but supposedly less costly promenade.

Of course not everything is perfect. As glorious as it may seem, the panorama is interrupted in numerous places by unexplainable piles of glass and steel (the largest one and most difficult to explain is by Frank Gehry, the IAC building). In addition, the Standard Hotel is an outright disappointment. My friend insisted that it was an old building from the ‘60s that had been renovated. Unfortunately it is almost brand new and actually praised as a masterpiece. It reminded me of a hotel I lived next to for more than two decades in Sofia, Bulgaria. It really was built in the ‘60s, a slab-like building whose blandness and curtain wall were very similar to the Standard. Oh well – it is a small world, after all, and there is a lot of repetition, especially within the repertoire of the international style. I hope Mr. Ouroussoff, who praises the Standard as “serious architecture,” will forgive me, but I will join Mr. Kunstler, who put the Standard in his Eyesore of the Month collection.

It feels absurd to talk sprawl when you are on the High Line, but as pre-occupied with sprawl as I have been for many years, I could not help but think of all that infrastructure – highways, arterials, collectors, cloverleaves, mega parking lots – that serves sprawling suburbia and how it will be maintained and updated in the coming age of the non-exuberant economy. How will we handle the suburban infrastructure when it crumbles and stops working? And who will pay for the transformation or replacement – or just the maintenance – of this profligate infrastructure? In a recent study, Strong Towns compared sprawl to a Ponzi scheme, which happens when “revenue from new growth is used to pay off liabilities from past growth.” This is not a bright future ahead.

A simple comparison between walkable, diverse places and sprawl makes it obvious that there will be much more demolition and even abandonment of infrastructure in sprawl where there is so much waste of space and resources.

Some of us imagine that sprawl can be redeemed. As early as 1977 Leon Krier suggested the retrofit of a multi-layered highway interchange in Athens, Piraeus into an elevated park or “wooded archipelago” leaving traffic and noise below, while opening views to the Acropolis. History has shown the death and rebirth of countless human settlements: layers upon layers of civilization happening at the same location. But are we going to succeed in recycling sprawl, rebuilding it, repairing it, making it a place beloved, spirit-lifting, and magical?

Or does magic happen only in New York?