Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Good, The Bad, and the...(OK, It's Really, Really Bad But Secretly, It's Kinda Good).

A few days ago, I promised to show you something new in New York City that I think is really terrific. First, a brief history lesson. Prior to the 1930's, rail freight in Manhattan ran level with the surface streets. Responding to years, of problems with freight trains mowing down cars and pedestrians, the High Line was built. The High Line ran down the west side of Manhattan about 30' above the ground. It went directly through buildings which built their own sidings to accept rail freight and got a hefty bit of traffic up in the air and out of everyone's way. It operated until 1980 when the last train ran on the High Line. (It was a delivery of frozen turkeys!)

Since the High Line closed to rail traffic, there's been a constant argument regarding what to do with the elevated rail line, which frankly was just decaying and becoming either an eyesore or a dramatic background, depending on your perspective. An organization called Friends of the High Line was founded and their dream of refurbishing the structure and opening it as a public park was realized last week. The first section of the High Line opened to the public last week (from Gansevoort to 20th St), and it's spectacular. Ultimately, the park will be open all the way up to 34th Street.

Here's a couple of links that are much more authoritative on the subject:

The History of the High Line, and a gallery of photos of the High Line in operation.

As a side note -- currently, there is no freight rail connecting NYC to New Jersey...which might have something to do with the amount of truck traffic on our streets, but that's a topic for another post.

Anyway, I went and took some shots of the new park last Tuesday, the day it opened. I deem it excellent.

First, a couple of shots from street level as an introduction. This is a shot showing the last existing portion at the southern end of the line. If it hadn't been demolished, the line would continue through the yellowish building there at the end.

Here's another spot. The part on the left is the main line and the part on the right is a spur leading into a building on the west side of 10th Avenue. (Later in the tour, you can see the same spot from track level and if you look at the link with historic photos, it also shows up there.)
This is one of the stairways leading up to the park. The building in the shot is brand new and they built it on stilts to accommodate the High Line (I don't suppose they had a choice by the time they built it, but still...)

Most of the length of the park incorporates walkways with old rails and wildflowers. It feels a lot like being a kid and exploring a secret place. One of those places your parents told you not to go to.

There are quite a few places to sit and watch the rest of the world go by.
More rails and flowers.

Unlike most parks, there's no attempt to create an illusion that you've removed yourself from the city, you're merely above it all -- both literally and figuratively.

There's an amphitheater built above 17th Street. I'll admit I'm not entirely sure what this is about, but people seem to be enjoying it. (Because of the choice of wood, it looks and smells like you've entered a sauna. Come August, it'll probably feel that way too, but that's not a knock on it.)
Here's the amphitheater from street level. If you embiggen the picture, you'll see that there's an uncompleted platform outside of the picture windows. Maybe there'll be performances in the air for folks to watch at some future date.

In the meantime, everyone seems happy to sit here and watch traffic go by under their feet.

I saw quite a few people posing for pictures with the traffic as a backdrop.

Along one stretch, there are these attractive wooden lounging chairs. They face an opening in the buildings to the west with a view of the Hudson River a block away. I'm betting these will be extremely popular on sunny afternoons. (You're invited to remember this version of lounging in a public space. Later in the post, I'll show you another, hideously tragic vision of the same idea.)

Note that they're built on rail wheels and positioned on the tracks. (I only saw ones that had the wheels clamped, but a friend said you can move some of them.)

There are a lot of really nice views from the park.


In some spots, the juxtaposition of the city and the park are quite fanciful. I was struck by this relationship and snapped off quite a few shots. I can't tell if my favorite was the one with this guy...

or this one.

The park includes some little nooks that come closer to removing you from the hustle and bustle.

This is right there in the middle of things but somehow, it's separate and idyllic.

Remember that shot from street level? This shows you where that spur used to enter the building on the west side of Tenth Avenue. To the right is the continuation of the main line. There's an almost identical shot in the historic photos link showing a rail car entering the building.

Now...onto the Really, Really Bad...

I've mentioned that I can't stand Times Square. I'll drive blocks out of my way to avoid trying to fight my way through it if I'm in a car and I rarely even walk through it unless someone is paying me to be there. It's noisy and crowded and full of clueless tourists who have no idea where they're going. It's a crushingly annoying place.

For better or worse, though...this is what it's supposed to look and feel like.

Well, Mayor Bloomberg got a bug up his ass and decided he'd try to transform the place into..something...I'm not sure what. Times Square exists because Broadway runs south through all of Manhattan, but at a slight angle...constantly angling east as it heads for lower Manhattan. Times Square is where it crosses Seventh Avenue. Our dear Mayor decided to close a few blocks of Broadway to traffic and make them into a pedestrian mall. I'm not entirely sure what he ultimately envisions, but the execution of the "temporary experiment" is...sorry...words fail me.

Remember those attractive wooden loungers on the High Line? In Times Square, apparently, you're supposed to feel like you drove in from Indiana with some lawn chairs from your backyard. And since they're just haphazardly plopped into the street (uh, is there supposed to be some direction you should focus on?), they're less about a moment of relaxation than they are about boredom. Frankly, it seems like people sit in them because they think they're expected to sit in them...and then they spend their time wondering how much longer they have to stay before they can go look for a bar.

But, (as I mentioned), secretly, I think it's a kinda good thing. We love tourists in NY and we really love tourist's money in NY...we just wish they'd come here and spend it without getting in our way. Maybe Mayor Mike has just provided a convenient place to pen them in...a place none of us locals wanted to go in the first place.

To paraphrase George Patton, "Bloomberg, you magnificent bastard!"


Jim Wright said...

Words fail me, Nathan.

For somebody like me, living in rural Alaska, these are like pictures from some bizarre alien world. I guess what really got me, was part where you said, "everyone seems happy to sit here and watch traffic go by under their feet." What? Why the hell would people want to watch the traffic go by?

I think if I was forced to live in a city like NY, I'd go insane in fairly short order.

And Times Square looks like hell on Earth to me.

Nathan said...

Why the hell would people want to watch the traffic go by?

It beats the hell out of watching it go over you.

And when you come visit NY, I'm gonna watch you every minute. I wanna see the moment when your brain stem rebels and takes off on its own.

I'll have the camera ready!

John the Scientist said...

Oh, man, you, me and Ilya have to take Jim to the most crowded parts of Manhattan just to watch him snap.

Nathan said...

I vote for Bayard Street in August. It'll be crowded and it'll smell nasty.

(And you can buy him something to eat that nobody else thinks of as food.)

Dr. Phil (Physics) said...

When I was in the NYC area, the High Line was for trains. Someone needs to put a caboose or a dining car on one of those sections. (grin)

Dr. Phil

neurondoc said...

You know, I would definitely come to NYC if Jim was visiting, especially if I would get to see his head explode. But I still won't do stinky tofu. I'll "develop" a rash or appendicitis or anaphylaxis and have to leave suddenly.

neurondoc said...

And now I really feel honored that you met me in Times Square that time (note that I despise it as well).

Nathan said...


your kid gave me chocolate. That's almost like getting paid.

Unknown said...

That's amazing (not what I was expecting when you wrote you were going to write about something that had newly opened), I really like that they have done something with the old railway line, much better than leaving it or knocking it down. I think the movable seat things have to be the best bit, but generally the fact that there are reminders that it was originally a railway line are really nice (then again I like trains). It's nice that they have planted as many plants as they have, if I had known about it before I doubt I would have imagined it with as many.

If I had to live in New York I guess I would hate Time Square too. There are places I hate going near when I go to London. I visited New York last year and guess I was one of those annoying tourists, sorry. At the same time though I guess I’m different to most tourists as I doubt many go to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. I hope for your sake though that there being no cars there does act like a pen then and keep them all in one place.

p.s. Looking forwards to seeing the High Line in a film one day!

Janiece said...

That was really neat, Nathan. Thanks for sharing this with us.

Nathan said...

Thanks for chipping in Jenny. I'm thinking I might offer a seminar in how to be an un-annoying tourist. It'd mostly consist of following them around with a cattle prod.

And unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at that sort of thing), they're not going to issue any permits for filming on the High Line for a little while at least. I'd love to be the first one to shoot up there.

Anonymous said...

Very impressive. Given all the things the high line could have been, really amazing that it is a public space and one that is done so well.

Nice photos, too.

Nathan said...

Thanks Todd. And considering that it was more likely to just be torn down than anything else, I'm really pleased with what they did.

WendyB_09 said...

I love cities that find new ways to use old, well, anything. In a city like NY where ground space is at a premium, the vision to put a public space up in the air on the tracks is inspired.

Here in Atlanta, we've been recycling buildings and neighborhoods on and off for years. I actually lived in a converted 1930 office building for a short time, which was pretty cool. And I have a friend living in a reclaimed metalworks building that used to cast fire hydrants. Their current unit used to be the old loading dock, so it's configured as a split level condo.

Tucked behind that building is an abandoned rail spur that is being transformed by the community into a park, complete with benches, a playground area and lots of plantings.

On a bigger scale, Atlanta is working to reclaim several old abandoned spurs that encircle the Intown-Midtown-Downtown areas and develop a commuter light rail line. Called the Beltline Project, they're currently trying to buy rights to all the properties involved. The economic crunch forced one of the developers to pull out, but the Mayor is determined she will leave this as her legacy to the city (I would not be surprised if she ended up heading it once she leave office next year). Real estate interest in areas to be served by this line has already spurred mixed use projects and a couple small parks have already being created.

Should be interesting.


vince said...

Times Square reminds me somewhat of the French Quarter in New Orleans. Although there are (or were when I lived in Biloxi, Mississippi) some great places in the French Quarter that a lot of the tourists missed.

I went once to Mardi Gras - never again. I mean, it was an experience, but - it was an experience.

We love tourists in NY and we really love tourist's money in NY...we just wish they'd come here and spend it without getting in our way.

That's kinda how we feel in Ely. We survive for the most part because of the tourist industry, but most of us are glad to have our streets back after Labor Day. We do have winter tourism, just not at the levels of summer tourism.

Also 1) that was an excellent way to put that area to use, and 2) those are great pictures.

Tania said...

Jim, I'm a born and raised Alaskan and I think it looks fascinating.


Nathan, thanks for sharing this, like others said, it's great when spaces can be re-purposed (hate that phrase, actually) into something like this.

Ilya said...

Man, I'm so looking forward to getting back to experience NYC. So many things seem to have changed since I left...

Random Michelle K said...

I love that the rails to trails movement is happening in the big city and not just rural areas.

Around here they're one of the flatter places, so they make good exercise trails.

ntsc said...

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey was created to build a freight rail line from New Jersey to Manhattan and on to Brooklyn.

It is getting onto 100 years now and they haven't started.

Jim, NYC is some bizare alien world. I'm from a small village in rural Illinois and lived there twice, the second time for 20 years. I now live about 30 miles outside the city and except for the house on the next lot cant see a sign of human habitation from my deck.

Nicole said...

that looks so awesome! I definetly have to check that place out, the garden is beautiful! I'm so glad they redid everything and made it open to everyone (even though there is no filming until labor day there eh!) talk to you soon! Nicole

Nathan said...

Cheese-it guys...don't tell Nikki about any of that stuff I told you I did that was totally illegal...filming-wise, that is. She's the AUTHORITIES!


Anonymous said...

What's interesting to me is that this public space looks a little bit like Millenium Park here in Chicago, I mean, the sort of grasses and wooden benches. Fashion in all these things, I suppose. Ten years from now, people will go: aww, that is lovely, it is so 2009.

Well, I like it, anyway.

Nathan said...


I'm actually hopeful that this will be a little more timeless than that. It's hard to predict, but I can dream, right?

And yeah...I like it a lot.

Anonymous said...

Haven't seen the HighLine since last October, when i went on tour during Open House NY days; and that was third time in a row. I have a small folder on construction progress; too bad they didn't preserve one ex-meat factory, where the freight cars were entering into the building and the carcasses were unloaded through pulleys and hooks running on ceiling tracks - it was all intact, if a bit shabby - but nothing you can't reuse.
I could invision them repurposing the structure for some other use - like those lounging chairs on rails. Ugh, too bad.

I rememeber talking to the one of the architects on a tour, he gave me a link to their internal site with drawings, site/landscape plans, the contract details with condos/coops and hotel developers, what they were given in city tax incentives & in exchange of percentage of retail at their ground and park level, and so on. That is the most interesting part; well, that and the design, of course - which is very, very clever and respectful to history and cityscape.

Nathan, I seem to remember seeing a documentary about HighLine made some time ago - of course, before the construction started - wouldn't it be nice to get new and old cadres juxtaposed?

Tatyana (we talked @ChicagoBoyz about street filming in NY)

Nathan said...

No idea John. I haven't driven through there since they closed it. FYI, they've also closed Broadway through Herald Square (at 34th Street).

Anne C. said...

This is very cool, Nathan! Thanks so much for bringing it to our attention! :D