I’ve come to regard New York City not as the clichéd “Big Apple” but rather a giant onion with layer upon layer of places to discover and things to experience on every return visit and such was the case one recent scorching Summer day as I spent a half day enjoying a leisurely stroll on the High Line.

Truth be told I was actually on the High Line once previously but in polar opposite weather conditions as that January visit saw the mercury plunge as low as -20 °C making lengthy outdoor walking tours virtually impossible in the lighter clothes I’d packed expecting relatively warmer weather.

If necessity is the mother of invention, the High Line was born from an early 1930’s need to elevate the ground level tracks which ran along 10th Avenue to end the frequent fatal collisions between trains, cars and pedestrians as the stretch had become so dangerous it was nicknamed “Death Avenue”.

Decades later as the freight industry shifted from rail to road with the rise of interstate trucking, the fortunes of the High Line declined to the point where a section of it was pulled down in the 1960’s and the last train ran in 1980.

After almost two decades of abandonment a group of Chelsea residents and property owners began lobbying for the derelict tracks demolition but encountered resistance from some neighborhood residents most notably Robert Hammond and Joshua David who saw the space not as urban industrial blight but as a “park in the sky”.  After meeting at a community event in 1999 and finding no other organizations working to save the railway Hammond & David formed Friends of the High Line and after enlisting celebrities such as actors Ethan Hawke and Edward Norton and designer Diane von Furstenberg persuaded the incoming New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg to set aside the demolition order of former mayor Rudy Giuliani.

A series of design competitions followed and the winning design by landscape architects Field Operations and Diller, Scofido + Renfro was chosen to emulate the example set by the Promenade Plantée in Paris and rebuild the High Line as a long overhead public park with a number of entry points and green space with lawns, trees and manicured foliage native to New England.

After the railway line’s owners CSX donated the High Line to the city of New York in late 2005 ground-breaking ceremonies soon followed leading to the 2009 opening of the first section from Gansevoort Street to West 20th Street with Section 2 from West 20th Street to West 30th Street opening  in 2011. Section 3 around the Hudson Rail Yards opens to the public in 2014 bringing the High Line to its current 2.3 KM length. 

That the experiment in pragmatic civic planning would work out so spectacularly well is something even its most ardent proponents probably could never have imagined as the High Line has become a beloved city landmark drawing an estimated 5 millions visitors a year and helping transform once gritty industrial areas into trendy sought-after addresses. This neighborhood transformation was spurred by 2005 city re-zoning that not only allowed the park itself but allowed construction of new developments alongside the tracks.

While there 11 entrances along the High Line for those wanting to walk it’s whole length I would recommend starting at the northern end at West 34th Street & 11th Avenue and strolling south through Chelsea ending in the heart of the Meatpacking District with its red brick former warehouses housing trendy shops and restaurants.  

My starting point is the CSX Gate on West 34th Street which is the only spot where the High Line reaches ground level before rises gently to offer a commanding view over the West Side Highway and Hudson River with Weehawken, New Jersey on the opposite shore.

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photo by author

The High Line bends around Hudson Yards at this point and a field of idle subway cars shimmer in the Summer sun.

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The railway tracks here and in other spots have been left exposed to remind visitors the history of this public space.

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It’s not hard to imagine at some spots along the High Line what it must’ve been like to like to live within metres of a railway.

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The redevelopment of the area lead to the design of residential buildings by so called ‘starchitects’, architects who’ve achieved a certain level of notoriety or celebrity status including the late Zaha Hadid whose design for 520 West 28th is “largely defined by graceful curves inspired by nature”. 

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There is more about Hadid who is the only female recipient of the prestigious Pritzker Prize for Architecture since it’s 1979 inception and the  first and only woman to be awarded the Royal Gold Medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects at the Artsy webpage.

The sinuous curves of the building are enough to stop most High Line pedestrians and left me pondering the transformation of a neighborhood built purely for industrial function into one whose form is celebrated as much as its function. This recent devotion to design is cited as having been sparked by the High Line’s rebirth.

 
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“The high line’s responsible for New York’s best upcoming architecture” by Dezeen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Walking through the Chelsea Thicket on the High Line between West 21 st and West 22nd Streets  is one of the closest experiences you’ll have to being in a forest in lower  Manhattan as this short stretch features densely-planted dogwoods, bottlebrush buckeye, giant pussy willow, American hollies, winterberries, and roses.

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Public art has always been incorporated into the High Line and the current year-long exhibit is entitled Mutations which “explores the relationship between man and nature, looking at how the boundaries between the natural world and culture are defined, crossed, and obliterated.”

photo by author

photo by author

One of the most beloved spots along the High Line has become the 10th Avenue Square with it’s wooden amphitheatre bench seating allowing visitors to perch and watch the traffic flow down West 17th Street under the viaduct through big Plexiglas windows cut into the iron railing.

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The view from this vantage point at dusk with the river of red brake lights glowing and city lights twinkling is worth a return visit.

A short walk away the High Line detours  through the former National Biscuit Company  (Nabisco) factory which was reborn 20 years ago as the Chelsea Market and now houses an eclectic variety of eateries in a food hall, a micro-brew, café, bookstore and kitchen supply company. The sprawling factory that witnessed the creation of the Oreo cookie in 1912 grew to occupy an entire city block and was built on the railway because of its proximity to butchers’ larder within the Meatpacking District in the 1890’s. At its height the factory produced half of the biscuits consumed in the United States before production was moved to the suburbs in 1958. There is a staircase from the High Line to street level at the Chelsea Market.

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The  rustic feel of the former factory with its exposed brick and wood floors is part of the charm of the Chelsea Market and is well worth a stopover for a bite and a beer for High Line walkers. My choice was the Zero Gravity Green State Lager brewed in Vermont and it proved a superb Summer beer with a crisp, clean taste.

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Just beyond the Chelsea Market is the Diller-von Furstenberg Sundeck & Water Feature with wood lounge chairs resting on the tracks and a gurgling water feature attracting kids and parched adults anxious to enjoy the water in a record heat wave that scorched the city.

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The cool, shady spot of the sundeck proved hard to leave after a short siesta.

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For New Yorkers living in small studio apartments this outdoor living room offers a space to hang out and socialize or ignore the masses for some alone time with a hand-held device.

The High Line ends at Gansevoort Street with the Renzo Piano designed Whitney Museum of American Art which opened in its current location in 2015 and focuses on 20th and 21st-century American art. There are several outdoor observation decks at the Whitney offering dramatic Hudson River and High Line views so ending a walking tour of this community corridor with a view from above offers a fine end to a fine day.

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There is an excellent pocket guide to the High Line and map of the line for visitors but part of the appeal is to aimlessly stroll the green space taking in the foliage and art at a leisurely pace.