The second irony is that, despite all the good vibes and upbeat statements from politicians at every level of the food chain, the stretch of the High Line that runs from 30th to 34th Street, fully 30 percent of its total length, is still in danger of demolition. Its fate is more or less in the hands of the MTA, which owns the Hudson Rail Yards. The MTA wants to sell its land for maximum profit and, by all indications, is not planning to make preservation of the High Line a condition of the sale.
The last irony is that the rest of the High Line—the one that Sternfeld photographed, the one that sparks that reliable hallelujah moment in the hearts of one goggle-eyed visitor after another—isn’t being saved at all. In fact, it was doomed from the start. Hammond and David knew that, in order to rally initial support, they had to convince people that the High Line was worth preserving in the first place, and they did so with Sternfeld’s bucolic images of an untouched pasture in the sky. But now the High Line, by necessity, is being stripped to its foundations. The Friends of the High Line spent a long time trying to figure out if that original park could be preserved, but it just wasn’t feasible. “That landscape existed because nobody could go up there,” says David. “And to get people to go up there, you have to do something different.” The architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro, who are designing the new park along with landscape architects Field Operations, initially submitted a plan using “flyovers”—basically, plankways that would sit over the existing High Line flora—but discovered there was too much industrial contamination on the site. “To let people go up there,” says Ric Scofidio, “we had to strip it.”
So when the new park opens next year, it will offer visitors a very different, essentially artificial experience. The park will ideally evoke the feel of the old, untouched High Line, which is now preserved only in Sternfeld’s loving photographs. Many of the same plants are being planted, some of the old rail track will be reused, and a concrete pathway will gently nudge visitors toward a similarly meandering experience as they travel from one end to the other. As for the new buildings around the High Line, that’s out of Scofidio’s hands. “Right now, a lot of the buildings along the High Line have blank walls, because there’s been no reason to open to the High Line,” he says. “If those blank walls suddenly become filled with balconies and windows, that’s going to change the atmosphere. But that’s going to happen. You can’t avoid it.” Hammond and David are more upbeat about the flourishing neighborhood. They react to concerns about all the radical changes with only a slight hint of weary defensiveness—like two researchers who’ve spent ten years trying to crossbreed a unicorn, and now they have to endure complaints about all the hot-dog stands popping up around the unicorn’s stable. “It’s very important for me to understand everything that’s happening here in the context of this much broader movement happening all over the city,” says David. “It’s just happening in a slightly different way here, because of the High Line.”
I asked Sternfeld if, having spent a year documenting the High Line in his own private park, he now felt mournful about its passing. He said, “Yes, no question about it. I feel really sad. It was beautiful. It was perfect. It was authentic. I wish everyone could have the experience that I had. But you can’t have 14 million people on a ruin.”
Since the High Line that you’ll walk on a year from now isn’t going to feel like the High Line you couldn’t walk on a year ago, let me try to lay out for you what your future hallelujah moment might feel like. At the south end, near the meatpacking district, the Standard Hotel, with its maybe-or-maybe-not staircase, will rise, bowlegged, with its trademark upside-down signage, eighteen stories above the park. There will be a satellite branch of the Whitney museum nearby. From the street, you can ascend the stairs to the High Line park and head north along a pathway of interlocking concrete planks. You can probably even bring a dog—as it stands, pets will be allowed on the High Line, but not bikes. (“The Hudson River Park is a fast park,” says Scofidio. “We envision this as a slow park.”) In early designs for the park, slim and stylish visitors are illustrated wandering idly through the sculpted grounds, among such oddball imagined details as a cantilevered grandstand on which people are seated watching 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Those elements—the grandstand, a proposed “water feature” that would have featured an urban beach—have since been discarded.) And as you walk, from time to time you’ll stand above an intersection, where you can enjoy a unique, unbroken vista from one side of Manhattan to the other; basically, the view you might get if you could stand in the middle of the road, not get run over, and be 30 feet tall.