Tuesday, November 24, 2015

An Improbable Park

Not many people remember it now, but in the early part of the last century New York was an industrial city. In Western Manhattan, the Meatpacking District bustled with 200 companies that prepared meat for shipment to other markets.  

Originally, meatpacking products were conveyed on a ground-level rail line. As the city grew more crowded, pedestrian-rail accidents increased, and so, in 1934, an elevated track, called the High Line, was built 30 feet above the roadway to send products to rail terminals and shipping piers.

But times changed.  Trucks replaced rail shipping, and meatpacking companies began moving out of Manhattan, typically to Brooklyn, where roads were less crowded and rents were lower. After a final shipment of frozen turkeys in 1980, the High Line was abandoned. 

Over time, the rail platform reverted to a state of nature.  Seeds carried by wind and birds embedded themselves among the tracks and grew into natural stands of weeds.  The whole thing grew to look rather shabby.  

Meanwhile, the Meatpacking District had turned into a neighborhood of trendy bars and restaurants.  By the turn of the Millenium, owners of neighboring buildings were lobbying to tear down the now dowdy High Line.

Some visionaries advanced a different plan.  They reasoned that the abandoned tracks were the only available open space in a very crowded urban neighborhood.  They proposed turning the High Line into a public park. 

Here is the result.

The transformation has been impressive.  I walked along the High Line on a gray weekday a few weeks back and saw several new construction projects that are oriented toward views of the park.

There also were many more people than in the top pictures, even though the weather was not encouraging and many plants had gone dry and dormant for cold season.  

This is true all year, I have heard.  After winter storms, people wait at the foot of the staircases and trot up into the park as soon as the snow has been shoveled.   

The High Line has kicked off a boom in its neighborhood.  The new Whitney Museum is just steps from its southern terminus, and at the northern end, the High Line will give way to a major multi-use development over the Hudson rail yards.  

The entire park is artificial in a way, very carefully planned and manicured in all seasons by a good-sized staff.  (Donations cover almost the entire maintenance budget.)  But even in a bustling, overcrowded city covered mostly with asphalt and cement, people crave the opportunity to walk a mile or so amid plants and above the noise of busy streets.

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