Thursday, October 3, 2013




It's almost as if the whole of 20th century architectural form -- from early brick geometries to glass-paneled perpendiculars to undulating choruses of banding -- convened to pose for this picture which I took (with my iPhone!) from New York City's High Line. Would that the visionary of this great elevated park, Peter Oblenz, had lived to see the beauty and vitality his grand scheme has contributed to New York life --  a park in the sky, pastoral, futuristic, yet accessible to everyone. Obletz lived alongside the abandoned elevated Tenth Avenue train track that ran down the middle of the street (and, with distressing frequency, ran down pedestrians; The street was nicknamed Death Avenue.) His vision would be hard won, require decades to manifest, and would transform an industrial derelict a paramount  example of urban reclamation and a signature New York destination.
 The original High Line was built in the thirties to service the warehouses along the West Side. No sooner was it built, however, than train traffic slowed to a trickle, thanks to the familiar death blow of the Depression and the popularity of truck transport. The last train ran on the High Line in 1980 (carrying, it is said, a load of turkeys on Thanksgiving morning), leaving the artery to rust and grow wild with weeds. Conrail, the railroad that owned the High Line, 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. The only reason it remained in place is that, essentially, no one wanted to pay to take it down. And so the High Line languished. Then, Peter Oblenz began rallying for the site's reclamation.
 It would be a decade and half before a not-for-profit group of neighborhood residents, business owners, design professionals and civic groups formed Friends of the High Line to carry forth Oblenz's mission. They garnered notable and powerful New Yorkers in the art, architecture, and civic world to support the vision of an elevated park. These efforts, of course, pleased no one who’d been entangled in the long battle to topple the High Line. For 20 years, local property owners were the main opponents to the park-conversion plan. 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.”
 Ultimately, the possibilities of the High Line caught the public imagination, and movers and shakers were able to persuade all the property owners to sign over their rights using the tool of allowing the owners to transfer their development rights to surrounding properties. They then rezoned parts of West Chelsea to allow for new, larger developments.
 Today the High Line is one of only two elevated parks in the world (the other, in Paris).  A Standard Hotel, built to straddle it, is among the City's fashionable, and a new branch of the Whitney Museum of American Art has come to the neighborhood. The landscaped walk-in-the-sky is planted with wild flowers, carving its way for  miles through the urban fabric two to three stories above ground.  Framed mostly by the backs of buildings and billboards, with occasional views opening out to the Hudson or across Manhattan, it is a voyeur's paradise, a nature-lover's retreat, an urban oasis.  Its uncanny isolation is magical, for  the park is integrated into the urban fabric so seamlessly as to be nearly invisible.
 As a result of the Peter Obletz' vision, its articulation, and the forbearence of those he motivated, even the humblest civic undertaking in New York today has become viewed as a potential gold mine. What the High Line achieved for pedestrian pleasure, it also accomplished for the future of urban design. City planners who once had to coax developers to build in rundown neighborhoods are groping for strategies to keep them at bay.