Monday, February 27, 2012



It's almost as if the buildings convened to create a portrait of 20th century architectural form -- brick geometry, perpendicular glass paneling, undulating choruses of banding. Such a view! I took this photo (with my iPhone!) from one of New York City's greatest civic sites, the High Line, the elevated garden walkway linking three Manhattan neighborhoods with acres of open space atop an abandoned rail deck. Would that the visionary who conceived it, Peter Obletz, were still alive to rejoice in its pleasures and success.

Part of the High Line's allure is its physical isolation, carving its way for miles through the urban fabric two to three stories above ground. It is framed mostly by the backs of buildings and billboards, with occasional views opening out to the Hudson or across Manhattan. It has provided Manhattan with a park in the sky (one of only two in the world -- the other being in Paris), pastoral, futuristic, yet accessible to everyone.

Obletz lived in the then-dilapidated neighborhood where the Tenth Avenue train track ran down the middle of the street and, with distressing frequency, ran down pedestrians. (The street was nicknamed Death Avenue.) He began rallying for his reclamation idea nearly 30 years ago, but it was not until 1999 when a not-for-profit group of neighborhood residents, business owners, design professionals, and civic groups formed Friends of the High Line to engage the city's notables in its cause.

The original elevated railway track was built at the turn of the century to serve the warehouses along the West Side. Train traffic soon slowed to a trickle, however, thanks to the familiar death blow of the Depression and the popularity of truck transport. The last train (said to be carrying a load of turkeys on Thanksgiving morning) ran on the High Line in 1980, leaving the artery to rust and grow wild with weeds. Conrail, the railroad's owner, wanted it gone, as did a consortium of local property owners led by one of the area’s largest interests, Edison Parking, and the City. At the height of the battle with Friends of the High Line, Edison Parking launched a propaganda campaign. One flyer read, “”Money doesn’t grow on trees, and last we checked, it isn’t growing in the weeds of the High Line.” And so the High Line languished for decades.

But once the cause became invested with a certain intangible downtown sexiness -- -- a landscaped aerie planted with wildflowers, an urban oasis, a scenic retreat --  the possibilities for the long-neglected piece of industrial detritus began to excite the potential donors needed to fight for its cause. Movers and shakers of the art and architecture worlds, civic powerhouses, and celebrities such as Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick got involved, and the vision began to take root.

Property owners were persuaded by the Department of City Planning to sign over their rights using the tool of allowing the owners to transfer their development rights to surrounding properties. Then parts of West Chelsea were rezoned to allow for new, larger developments.  In fact, the partnership between city planners and High Line advocates was one of the most sincere efforts in recent memory to protect the public interest from an onslaught of commercialization. The final zoning regulations for the area require setbacks to protect some major view corridors; at other points, buildings are allowed to shoot straight up to maintain the sense of compression that is part of the High Line’s charm. The core of several blocks, meanwhile, remain zoned for manufacturing in the hope of maintaining some of the area’s character.

Today, a dozen or more luxury towers and a new branch of the Whitney Museum of American Art have claimed the High Line neighborhood. The Standard Hotel actually straddles the Line. The surrounding neighborhood, too, has been  revitalized, and real estate prices, which have escalated more than 30 percent,  are now among the highest in the city. Because of Obletz' vision and the efforts of those he motivated, even the humblest civic undertaking has now become viewed as a potential gold mine.