Tag Archives: New York City

completion of the High Line September 21, 2014

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Before it was constructed, the New York Central Railroad had operated a rail freight line at grade, or street level, along Tenth Avenue, and men on horseback (“West Side cowboys”) had ridden ahead of the train with red flags or lanterns to warn pedestrians of its coming; yet even with this picturesque alarm system, so many careless, inebriated or simply unlucky citizens had gotten run over that the street acquired the notorious name “Death Avenue.” For over 70 years, since the mid-19th century, public outcry had agitated against this danger to life and limb, demanding a safer solution: thus, the High Line.” (Here.)

Completed September 21, 2014, the High Line park has now become many things to many people, its Rashomon effect hashed out in the comments section of the many articles written about its success. It’s been five years since the first phase opened, with the third and final phase finished this fall. Over that span of time, my unadulterated delight at the railway’s rebirth into a park with plantings designed by Piet Oudolf has become complicated by learning of many other divergent reactions, and quite a few outright hostile ones, including accusing the park of being a Trojan Horse hiding rapacious developers. Because of the unimagined success of its new life as a beloved city park and tourist destination, drawing 5 million a year, it’s easy to forget its humble origins in community activism. I’ve seen neighborhood activism up close, and it isn’t always pretty. Contentious, divisive, disillusioning, these are what come to mind. Semi-contemporaneous with the grass-roots conversion of the disused railway line into a public park in NYC, my neighborhood association in Los Angeles was also involved in a grass roots effort concerning a property suffering from extreme landlord neglect, a property that slipped in and out of drug dealing. After years of frustrating engagement with the city at all levels, code, police, planning, the property seemed to magically accelerate on a fast track to a “pocket park,’ a cherished pipe dream of neighborhood activists. All of a sudden, the long-sought grant money was there, the city’s will was no longer wobbly but strong, and after years of dead-end efforts, the pocket park was a go. Plans were approved, the troubled property was sacrificed on the altar of eminent domain, and the park is now a year old. (I had nothing to do with the process, only attending a couple meetings and ceremonies.) The differences in scale between the two projects couldn’t be more stark, but I have to admit I had my doubts that either project would ever get off the ground. Another difference is that, unlike the High Line project, everyone in our neighborhood is wildly enthusiastic about our result. But then our neighborhood is in no danger of developers rushing in to build luxury penthouses to take advantage of views of our pocket park. (Some might say more’s the pity!)

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The High Line experienced a similar acceleration when Giuliani and his pro-demolition sympathies left office, replaced by Michael Bloomberg, whose new agenda included finding innovative ways to include more parks despite the seemingly maxed-out density of NYC. The dream of a park in the sky found a powerful champion. With the completion of the final phase, and housebound with a sore throat, I dug a little deeper into the formation of the High Line, and what I found was a mulligan stew of community activism, timely rezoning, and a strange concept called “air rights,” mixed with insatiable appetites for high-end real estate development. The gentrifcation of this former manufacturing neighborhood was going to happen with or without the High Line. As with so many American cities, manufacturing had long decamped. Art galleries and designer ateliers had already moved in. Businesses directly under the disused structure were agitating for its removal to develop their valuable properties skyward. Ultimately, what came to the rescue of these disgruntled businesses as well as park proponents was ingenious manipulation of TDRs (Transferable Development Rights). And built into plans for the High Line’s redesign were considerations for unopposed views and open space that arguably wouldn’t have been a vision for this neighborhood’s growth had the High Line been demolished.

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High Line Adjacency Controls: Required Open Space
A minimum of 20% of the lot area would be required to be reserved as landscaped open space. To provide a visual extension of the High Line, the required open space would be located adjacent to and at a height not to exceed the level of the High Line. The required open space could not front on Tenth Avenue and could be used as a public or private space
.” (Here.)

But back to the inception. The owners of the railway, CSX, who acquired it from Conrail in 1998, resisted the swelling outcry for demolition and opted instead to commission a study of potential uses. (Bless CSX for that.) Rail banking was a proposal that intrigued neighborhood residents Joshua David and Robert Hammond, both in attendance at that meeting unveiling the results of the study. (My community garden lies in a disused railway easement, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s also a beneficiary of rail banking.) After that momentous meeting, David and Hammond formed the nonprofit Friends of the High Line, fully in support of a park use for the railway.

Along with requisitioning the potential use study, CSX fortuitously hired photographer Joel Sternfeld, whose evocative photos were just the boost the proposed park needed.

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photo by Joel Sternfeld 2000

One of the single most important things that happened to save the High Line in the very early days was when CSX made it possible for Joel Sternfeld’s project to photograph the High Line,” says David.
“They basically made it possible for the world to see what was on top of the High Line.
” (Here.)

In the beginning, we didn’t know what the High Line should ultimately look like. We didn’t know exactly what the design should be. We always thought the community and the city should decide what it should be. Over time, people coalesced around Joel’s photo and when you asked them, “What do you want the High Line to be?” they’d point to Joel’s photos and they’d say, “I want it to be like that.” In some ways, that was the biggest inspiration behind the design, Joel’s photos of the landscape.” (Interview with Robert Hammond Here.)

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Now when I see pictures of just the High Line without any people, I realize it wasn’t as good.
It’s really beautiful when you have people interacting with the new landscape of the High Line
.” — Robert Hammond Here.

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What was striking is that in all my reading, not once was the amazingly complex plantsmanship of Piet Oudolf cited as part of the appeal that lures so many to the High Line.
Through his plantings, Oudolf matched the spirit of Sternfeld’s photos of the abandoned railway recolonized by plants.

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Where once there was a clang and clamor of industry, the noisy, physical manifestation of America’s 20th Century manufacturing might, the old railway has been repurposed for another kind of movement that seems to strike some as aimless, idle, purposeless: people making multivaried use of a park.

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The fact that this new amenity sprang from older industrial infrastructure says a lot about the current moment in New York’s evolution. A city that had once pioneered so many technological and urban planning solutions, that had dazzled the world with its public works, its skyscrapers, bridges, subways, water-delivery system, its Central Park, palatial train stations, libraries and museums, appears unable to undertake any innovative construction on a grand scale, and is now consigned to cannibalizing its past and retrofitting it to function as an image, a consumable spectacle. Productivity has given way to narcissism; or, to put it more charitably, work has yielded to leisure.” (Here.)

I would argue that instead of cannibalizing the past, the past has been honored and included in the present moment, which is a continuum that the wisest cities respect.
I would argue that the High Line gives all of us, not just the 1 percent, million-dollar views of New York.
And the fact that funding was found for a park (a park!) and not another sports arena still strikes me as extraordinary and reason enough to celebrate.

I’ve included photos of one of my visits to the High Line in June 2013.

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Railroad lines crisscrossing the country move freight, delivering everything from coal to cars.
But one rail line running above the streets on Manhattan’s West Side moves your soul, delivering sanctuary amid coneflower and pink evening primrose
.” (Here.)

Reading for this post can found at these links:








Developers Want Easier Access to High Line Air Rights; But Should City Fix Something That Doesn’t Look Broken?



wall street occupies central park

From Wikipedia: “Patronage is the support, encouragement, privilege, or financial aid that an organization or individual bestows to another.”

New York City’s Central Park has found a patron to rival the Medicis. Hedge fund manager John. A. Paulson has gifted Central Park $100 million.

photo by Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

It’s about time that parks saw some major philanthropic action too.

Asked what prompted the gift, he said: ‘Walking through the park in different seasons, it kept coming back that, in my mind, Central Park is the most deserving of all of New York’s cultural institutions. And I wanted the amount to make a difference. The park is very large, and its endowment is relatively small.’” — A $100 Million Thank-You for a Lifetime’s Central Park Memories, Lisa Foderaro, The New York Times, 10/23/12.

From the Central Park Conservancy website: “Eighty-five percent of Central Park’s $46 million annual expense budget comes from private donations. Central Park has received an unprecedented gift of $100 million from John A. Paulson and the Paulson Family Foundation to help sustain the progress we’ve made since 1980 and ensure that generations to come will be able to make their own memories here.”

New York City parks are really feeling the love lately. What a roll they’ve been on the past couple years:

The gift is the latest in a year in which city parks emerged as major beneficiaries of philanthropy, joining more traditional recipients like museums, hospitals and universities. A year ago, the Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation pledged $20 million to the High Line, the elevated park on the West Side of Manhattan; that donation followed two other gifts to the High Line from the foundation, totaling $15 million. In April, Joshua P. Rechnitz, an amateur track cyclist, announced a gift of $40 million to Brooklyn Bridge Park to build a field house with a cycling track.” — A $100 Million Thank-You for a Lifetime’s Central Park Memories, Lisa Foderaro, The New York Times, 10/23/12.

The Low Line (really)

Credit goes to New York for currently being the city with the most moxie, ingenuity, and brass-balled chutzpah in creating new public parks. (See Frank Bruni’s 7/14/12 piece in the NYT’s Sunday Review “Our Newly Lush Life.”) New York’s recent success with parks illustrates two important points: Where space is at a premium, look again at existing, abandoned infrastructure. When money is tight, get creative with public/private relationships. New York is aiming to build on the enormous success of the High Line, the abandoned elevated railway transformed into one of the most exciting public/private garden collaborations of recent years, but this time going underground.

Yes, underground, where the sun don’t shine.


With a moon-shot, can-do, New York swagger, co-creators of the Delancey Underground project, James Ramsey and Dan Barasch, envision light reaching the abandoned Delancey Street Trolley Station through “a large system of mirrors and fiber optics to transport sunlight from the streets above into the cavernous facility, filling the space with enough natural lighting to even allow plants to grow.” (“The Low Line – New York’s First Underground Park“)

Architectural Digest’s 5/11/12 Daily Ad reported on a soiree held to benefit the High Line and ended with this intriguing snippet:

As for New York’s next great park, Boykin Curry, a partner at Eagle Capital Management, and his wife, interior designer Celerie Kemble, mentioned a project they’re currently championing: the Low Line. ‘Some friends and I have been collaborating on this,’ explained Curry of the proposed two-acre subterranean park that would occupy a former trolley terminal on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. ‘A friend of ours is an engineer who invented the technology to bring sunlight below ground, so you can grow trees and grass there,’ he continued. ‘We’re working on it with the MTA and the city.’ Fingers crossed.”

No, I’m not making this up. You can read more about the Low Line here and here. Initial fund-raising goal was met on Kickstarter this past April.

Dim View of the High Line

Yesterday 5/15/11 The New York Times published in their Opinion section “Bringing The High Line Back To Earth” by Witold Rybczynski, professor of urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania. Professor Rybczynski feels compelled to warn us that the brilliant success of the High Line park on Manhattan’s West Side is probably not replicable elsewhere and not a viable model for urban parks. He warns us not to put our trust in urban design, which has “failed” us all too often.

The professor also deems the planting designed by Piet Oudolf “relentlessly hip.” As opposed to bedding out begonias? What exactly does that mean? The professor continually breaks down this magical experience into units, planning board units, yet this park was born out of a love of neglected places and nurtured (with private money) into something astonishing. Personal, historical layers such as these cannot be dissected and pinned to a planning layout. The very act of retaking a neglected place, that historical narrative alone, brings immense vitality to a neighborhood. If not an elevated railway, perhaps an abandoned military fort. Or, as in the case of my own neighborhood, an unused armory (first meeting tonight). The High Line is not an exact blueprint but a brilliant suggestion.

I visited what’s now known as Phase I of the High Line in autumn 2010, which was probably the major impetus for finally spending a few days in NYC rather than just a flyover. Phase II opens in June.


In attempting to persuade us that the High Line is a one-off phenomenon, applicable only to New York, there’s some circular logic at play here, as in his assertion that “In no other American city do residents rely so much on communal green space, rather than backyards, for relaxation.”

Perhaps the word “enjoy” should be substituted for “rely.” The great legacy of Olmstead’s Central Park has become grafted onto New York’s identity, and, like its iconic buildings and neighborhoods, is inseparable from its allure, just as Golden Gate Park is for San Francisco. Both parks are intrinsic to these popular cities’ livability and have become interwoven among the reasons why young people will always leave home to squeeze into tiny apartments with multiple roommates. These vast urban parks that course through cities, lapping up against multiple neighborhoods, soaking up a myriad of personal, unique experiences, are a far cry from suburban parks with their predesigned activity layouts — clearly marked areas for sports, picnics, playgrounds. Great parks, great cities.

The professor lists several cities contemplating elevated parks and advises against it. I say go for it.

Dutch Wave Breaks Over New Amsterdam

At the Battery, Piet Oudolf has written another glorious fall chapter to the story of the renaissance of urban gardens in New York City.
Here at the Battery Bosque, the emphatic sweep of plants is at times even more dramatic than the High Line, in deeper soil with broader planting beds.
With just these two gardens and now the new Goldman Sachs headquarters, the Dutch Wave gains force and continues to break over New Amsterdam.


I had seen the prototype of the Statue of Liberty in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris years ago, but this was my first glimpse of this wonderful gift from France on her island home.

These World War II memorial pylons, rising out of a mist of Anemone japonica and grasses, align on an axis that leads the eye to Liberty Island.


Surrounded by grasses bending and tossing in the winds blowing off the Hudson as it meets New York Harbor, the Battery is a splendid backdrop for ferry gazing.


You will not find municipal plantings of the dwarf chrysanthemums seen elsewhere throughout the city in fall, but plants of great line, body, and character sheltered under plane trees.