Trail of the Month: October 2011
It's been hailed as the "miracle above Manhattan"—an unused and decaying stretch of elevated tracks in the Chelsea neighborhood that was rescued from near-certain demolition and transformed into one of the city's most popular and celebrated public spaces.
It took nearly a decade of work—battling property owners, developers and city officials; filing lawsuits; lobbying politicians; cultivating influential public figures; holding design competitions; and raising $150 million to bring the mile-long High Line to life and make it such a success. In recognition of this work, and the shining example it has become for the national rail-trail movement, the High Line was recently inducted into Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's (RTC) Rail-Trail Hall of Fame.
Clearly, the people who orchestrated this "miracle" must have been well-connected, experienced, savvy operators—lawyers or financiers or lobbyists? Not even close.
Robert Hammond was 30, living in Greenwich Village, working for start-up Internet companies and painting in his spare time when he helped start Friends of the High Line. The group's co-founder, Joshua David, was a 36-year-old freelance writer who lived near the mid-section of the unused railroad line. The two men met at a community board hearing in 1999 about the future of the railroad, and, when everyone else at the meeting spoke in favor of tearing it down, they decided to band together to save the High Line.
"Neither one of us had any background in rail-trails, and in some ways I think that was an advantage," Hammond says. "If we had known all the hurdles in front of us, it might have been a little more daunting."
Hammond and David recount the history of their quixotic struggle to save the rail line in their new book, High Line: The Inside Story of New York City's Park in the Sky. In a recent interview, Hammond recalled that the High Line's initial appeal to him had nothing to do with parks or trails. "It was the industrial ruin I was so fascinated by—the steel and the rivets," he says. "To imagine a train running through my neighborhood, it was just so intriguing and exciting."
The elevated rail line, built in the 1930s, was designed to move freight trains from their tracks on 10th and 11th avenues—where they regularly ran down unlucky pedestrians—to a safer perch three stories up. For several decades, the trains rolled in and out of the warehouses and factories in this once-industrial part of Manhattan, transporting agricultural products, raw materials and finished goods.
By the 1960s, truck traffic had largely supplanted train traffic into and around the city, and a southern section of the High Line was torn down. Trains continued to travel on the remaining tracks until 1980, when the last one—pulling boxcars of frozen turkeys—rolled into history. By the time Hammond and David got their first tour of the elevated tracks, shortly after the 1999 community board hearing, "there was a mile and a half of wildflowers," Hammond recalls.
"It was fascinating how nature had reclaimed this manmade steel structure, and the juxtaposition of this old railroad being overtaken by wildflowers," he says. "There's probably thousands of miles of abandoned railroads being overtaken by nature across the country—but this was in the middle of Manhattan, elevated three stories off the ground."
With no experience in preservation projects, Hammond and David had to turn to others for help and advice in how to save the rail corridor. "When I first heard the term "railbanking,"I thought, "'Oh, the railbank will pay for it,'" Hammond says. "I quickly found out that you have to find your own money."
Among those they sought out for assistance were staffers at RTC's headquarters. With RTC's help, says Hammond, "we were able to show there was a clear precedent for this type of project, that thousands of miles have been converted to rails-trails, and it had been done in every single state. That was a really powerful message."
Assistance from individuals and groups like RTC allowed Friends of the High Line to overcome opposition and rally both public and political support for turning the rail line into an elevated park. "Ultimately, I don't think you can get these projects done if you're just fighting," says Hammond. "When Mayor Bloomberg came on board, he became a huge supporter, and we ultimately partnered with the city."
The effort finally bore fruit in 2009, when the first 10-block-long section of the High Line opened. The second section opened in June, doubling the length of the trail. With its artfully designed gardens, grasslands, meadows, seating and sunbathing areas—and stunning views of the streetscape below and the skyline beyond—the High Line Park has quickly become one of New York City's major destinations.
The popularity of the park and the glowing press it has received has spurred a flurry of investment in the surrounding neighborhood, generating an estimated $2 billion in new development. "So even though [the High Line] cost a lot, it's already proven to be a great investment for the city, just in financial terms," Hammond says.
The job isn't done, however. Plans are in the works to extend the park another half-mile north on the last remaining stretch of the unused elevated tracks. And Friends of the High Line needs to raise about $3 million each year just to keep the existing park running, under an agreement with the city that makes the nonprofit group responsible for maintenance of the High Line.
It's a big responsibility, but for those seeking to create similarly transformative spaces in their own communities, Hammond offers encouraging advice. "I think the most important thing is to start something—other people will come along to help. You don't have to have all of the money, you don't have to have all of the answers—other people can help you develop all those things. The most important thing is just starting it."
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