It was a sunny autumn day when my husband and I decided to take a walk along the railroad tracks. That wouldn’t be the usual place for a safe, pleasant stroll. But some forward-thinking folks looked at the old High Line in New York City and decided that it could be reclaimed as a second-floor park, of sorts.
To put it simply, it’s a story of extreme recycling. The High Line, according to both an on-site employee and an online website, was originally built to keep dangerous freight trains off Manhattan’s streets. Men on horses, called the West Side Cowboys, rode ahead of the trains waving red flags to warn people the iron horses were coming through. Still, so many accidents occurred between freight trains and street traffic before the High Line was erected that 10th Avenue was known as Death Avenue.
In an effort to create safer passage, the High Line was built in the 1930s and lifted industrial transport 30 feet above pedestrians and street traffic. The entire project was 13 miles long and eliminated105 street-level railroad crossings. The rail system actually went through some buildings, making it easier to load and unload cargo inside factories or warehouses.
For two decades, the High Line was a vital part of the infrastructure but it saw a dramatic decline in use in the 1950s as the transportation trend turned to interstate trucking. The southernmost part of the track was demolished and the last train pulled out, carrying three carloads of frozen turkeys.
Sometimes, something we thought was integral to our lives becomes outdated. Still have a VCR in your home?
Or, for that matter, a DVD player? Most everyone has gone to Blu Ray.
It isn’t always easy or obvious to find a new use for old things. A VCR doesn’t make a great planter box and it’s hard to find a use for a Sony Walkman when an iPod is handy. Like those and other outdated inventions, this skeleton of a transportation system hung high in the air without purpose for decades.
Until someone realized it was still a good way to escape the crowded commerce and the chaotic car traffic. The High Line could still provide transportation…by transporting visitors a couple of flights of stairs up to a surprisingly serene and peaceful environment. Founded in 1999 by residents in the neighborhood, Friends of the High Line pushed for its preservation and “reuse as public open space.” According to the website, “the design process began with an Open Ideas Competition in 2003. All 720 entries were made available to the public and response to the ideas helped shape the design process.”
This “reuse” project revived more than 17 city blocks. Once an empty and decrepit space that hung over ground floor traffic like a hulking ghost of transport past, the High Line has become a popular gathering spot for the local community and a destination for visitors from around the world. The second section opened in the summer of 2011 and immediately urbanites embraced the elevated park. The day we wandered through it, a guide was leading a tour of what appeared to be city officials from foreign countries learning about its transformation from utility transportation to relaxing recreation.
It is a park for walking, sun bathing on wooden lounges, and water play for children. Although a VCR doesn’t make a great planter box, railroad tracks apparently do. Designers retained some of the original track, allowing some of the high grasses and wispy weeds that had grown up between the ties to stay. The rails are a visual reminder of the original purpose of the open space area. The landscaping is mostly naturalized and low maintenance.
The High Line has become an old-fashioned social networking site. City dwellers gather for open air meals as a community. They sit on bleachers that look down on the surrounding streets to watch the performance art of daily city life below. The bright fall hues and dazzling spring colors thread high above the Meatpacking District, West Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen, and the West Side Rail Yards neighborhoods, bringing year round a splash of nature to the urban landscape. In addition to the vibrant vegetation and the sparkling nighttime views, the High Line is also an art gallery with different installations lining the walkways or perched on nearby rooftops.
Every community has a corner somewhere that could use a little creative boost. Dilapidated or unused areas don’t have to become an eyesore if someone sees the potential beauty or purpose tucked away within.
It’s unlikely railway workers and loading dock crews ever imagined that the generations following in their industrial tracks would design an urban escape. This enterprise took a lot of industriousness and innovation, just as the High Line did originally, and may serve as an inspiration for other extreme recycling projects.
Jaletta Albright Desmond is a columnist who writes about faith, family, and the fascinatingly mundane aspects of daily life. She lives in Davidson with her family. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.