The High Line: New York

by Drucilla James

Wildflower Field

book 2 pxThis book, a guide to the High Line in New York, which winds along one and a half miles of derelict, railway track thirty feet above Manhattan’s Westside, celebrates a public space which takes a simultaneous delight in nature and in the man-made monuments, both ancient and modern, of the city , including the railway itself.

Sumptuously illustrated, the book is a walk through the park from Gansvoort to 34th Street interspersed with reflections, philosophical, scientific and aesthetic – although as with the High Line itself, there are a number of points of entry to the story.

One theme of the work is the history of the original railroad known as the ‘lifeline of New York’, which opened in 1934 and closed in 1980. Years later, in 1999, Joshua David and Robert Hammond founded the Friends of the High Line to preserve what remained of the railroad and “the meadow in the sky” it had become and eventually, following a hard-fought campaign and an international design competition, the Park opened in 2009.

washington grasslands px

Washington Grasslands

The gardens along the length of the Park were designed by landscape architect, James Corner and planting designer, Piet Oudolf to be a journey through strikingly different environments, which preserved a spirit of wildness and had plants offering interest in every season. “All my work is related to trying to recreate the spontaneous feeling of plants in nature,” Oudolf is quoted as saying. The gardens start with the grey birch grove of the Gansevoort Woodland, and continue through the open plaza of grasses, perennials and shrubs of the Washington Grasslands, and flow via The Bog – a tribute to wet pockets of the past, on to the Chelsea Grasslands characterised by the four grasses of the great North American prairies – bluestem, turkeyfoot, Indiangrass and switchgrass. Further on lie The Chelsea Thicket with its momentary sensation of being in a wood, the Woodland Flyover, a steel catwalk rising eight feet over lush groundcover on the old railbed, meadows and the Wildflower Field.

Thicket and Flyover

The Chelsea Thicket and Woodland Flyover

The garden descriptions are interwoven with the histories of the plants they contain- like Sassafras albidium exported to Europe by Raleigh in 1602 where people came to believe it cured VD; Queen Anne’s Lace which colonised the railroad in its years of decay; and Ailanthus altissima the tree of heaven, featured in the novel “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”.

Pharmacy in the sky px

Echinacea – one of the plants used for centuries as a herbal remedy

The Park is a place of passage but it is also designed for lingering and reflection. There are the lounge chairs of The Sun Deck which look out on the boat traffic of the omnipresent Hudson River or the “Death Avenue” Ampitheater with its grand views of traffic in motion or Tenth Avenue Square which looks out towards the Statue of Liberty. And then there is The Lawn which, quoting John Falk a professor at Oregon State University, it claims, taps into our ‘genetic memory of paradise’.

ampitheater radial bench

‘Death Avenue’ Ampitheater and block-long radial bench that runs between 29th and 30th Streets

Described as a ‘way of experiencing the narrative that makes up New York’s history’ the walk also unfolds the story of the buildings, privileged glimpses of which can be seen from the Park.  The pleasure is in the detail – like descriptions of Pier 54 which saw the departure of the Lusitania in WWI and which now has Diane Von Furstenberg’s studio nearby with its ‘diamond in the sky’ penthouse and stairdelier with panels of glass made from 3000 Swarovski crystal prisms. The descriptions evoke the industrial past – headquarters of major companies like Nabisco; the glittering works of modern “starchitects” like Frank Gehry’s IAC building where glass seems to ‘bend into curves’; and cultural heritage like the Chelsea Hotel, named after the Royal Chelsea Hospital where Twain, De Beauvoir, Sartre, Arthur Miller, Dylan Thomas, Tennessee Williams amongst others, all lived.


Views of Frank Gehry’s IAC headquarters and New York Times,Conde Nast, Bank of America Tower and Empire State.

Invoking these literary spirits reminds us that the original founders resisted the word “park”- seeing the High Line as a cultural institution as well as a green space. So there is a curator, in addition to the horticulturalists, to plan and present a public art programme throughout the year which reflects the importance of the creative arts to this neighbourhood.

The book is both linear and cyclical as it develops its themes alongside the walk. It is a splendid evocation of the experience of the walk and its significance. But reading the book is not simply about appreciating the High Line, it is also about how to live in an environmentally responsible way in the modern city and it addresses preoccupations common to city dwellers around the world. Whether it be waste -park food vendors provide compostable utensils and packaging for everything they sell; or rainwater run-off- the High Line  has complex drainage arrangements funnelling the water into the shallow beds; or light pollution- there is LED lighting at plant level at night; or attracting wildlife particularly pollinators- there is abundant use of native species successfully attracting wildlife including 200 bee species; or getting people to own and care for city spaces – the park makes great use of community volunteers – Annik la Farge explores possible solutions to pervasive city dilemmas.

food and wildlife

On the High Line: Exploring New York’s most original urban park by Annik La Farge, an updated and expanded edition, including the latest sections opened in 2014,  is published by Thames & Hudson £19.95

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