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The High Line: It Brings Good Things to Life

The abandoned railroad that made a park ... that made a neighborhood ... that made a brand.

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Illustration by Andy Friedman  

Someday, around a year from now, one of your friends is going to say to you, “Let’s go to the High Line.”

Now, this person might be talking about the High Line park, the well-publicized ribbon of greenery that’s being constructed on an abandoned elevated rail line in far west Chelsea, running north from Gansevoort all the way to 34th Street. Or your friend might be referring to the High Line neighborhood: the new skyline of glittering retail spaces and restaurants and condos, designed by brand-name architects like Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel and Robert A.M. Stern, with names like the High Line Building and High Line 519 and HL23. Or your friend might mean the High Line Terrace and Lounge in the new condo tower at 245 Tenth, which promises prospective residents views over the High Line, along with “polished cervaiole marble floors.” Or maybe your friend wants to go to the Highline Thai restaurant on Washington Street, or the High Line Ballroom, a recently opened concert venue, which, starting May 9, will be part of the High Line Festival, an event curated by David Bowie and showcasing such snazzy right-now artists as Ricky Gervais and Arcade Fire. Granted, a few of these events will be barely within yodeling distance of the High Line—you know, the railroad—but no matter: Two of the festival’s producers, Josh Wood and

David Binder, chose the name less for a proximity to the High Line than for their philosophical alignment with the park. “The High Line is very much about aesthetics and design,” says Binder. “We’re trying to be as well.”

“Everyone in New York City has been so supportive of the High Line,” says Wood. “It’s probably the one public-works project that no one has anything bad to say about.”

Given all this activity, it’s probable that, like most New Yorkers, you’ve already heard of the High Line. It’s also probable that, like most New Yorkers, you’re only vaguely aware of what exactly it’s going to be. Maybe the last time you thought about it was in 2003, when Friends of the High Line—the nonprofit group that’s been fighting doggedly to save it for the past eight years—held an open design competition for creative suggestions as to its ultimate fate. The results were exhibited at Grand Central Terminal, and submissions ranged from a permanent nature preserve to a roller coaster. One of the winning entries was a 22-block-long elevated swimming pool.

So here’s an update.

First, the short version: The High Line is a brand-new park. In the sky.

Now, the longer, slightly more complicated version: The High Line is, according to its converts (and they are legion), the happily-ever-after at the end of an urban fairy tale. It’s a “flying carpet,” “our generation’s Central Park,” something akin to “Alice in Wonderland ... through the keyhole and you’re in a magical place.” It’s also the end-product of a perfect confluence of powerful forces: radical dreaming, dogged optimism, neighborhood anxiety, design mania, real-estate opportunism, money, celebrity, and power. In other words, it’s a 1.45-mile, 6.7-square-acre, 30-foot-high symbol of exactly what it means to be living in New York right now.

But first, let’s start with the park.

If New York were in the practice of erecting statues to living people, you could make a good case that Joshua David and Robert Hammond should be cast in bronze tomorrow. You can almost picture their monument, too—perhaps the two of them smiling, arm in arm, hard hats on their heads—which you could unveil next spring at the projected opening of the High Line park. Or, instead, you could place that statue in the lobby of Craftsteak, the cavernous, warmly lit restaurant at the corner of Tenth Avenue and 15th Street, where I met Hammond and David for dinner on a recent rainy April night.

Walking along 15th toward Craftsteak, you’ll find as good a tour of the new Manhattan, pressed up shoulder to shoulder with the old one, as you’re likely to find. In one block I passed an auto-repair shop (“Foreign and Domestic”), the display windows of Jeffrey department store, a car wash right under the High Line, and a jam-packed opening at Milk Gallery, where well-dressed art-world attendees were lit up sporadically by the pop of flashbulbs. On Tenth, Escalades and limos sat idling with their blinkers on, outside Morimoto, or Del Posto, or Craftsteak, the massive restaurants drawing diners to their tastefully humble façades. As it happens (and this story has a lot of “as it happens” moments), Hammond, who is a part-time painter, has three of his works hanging in Craftsteak, and a huge painting by Stephen Hannock of the High Line, as seen from a nearby rooftop, is displayed in the restaurant’s main dining room. “We took him up on the building to help him get that vantage point,” says Hammond. “And we used an old photo taken from the same place in the thirties as a reference. It’s amazing that, besides the Gehry building”—which is visible in the painting as a skeletal shell full of lights, mid-construction—“how little in the neighborhood has changed.”


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