Friends in high places

Karl Quinn surveys the politics and passion surrounding 800 metres of elevated steel and concrete in Manhattan.

Cold, hard and grey it might be but concrete sure fires the passions. Here we are on an 800-metre stretch of the stuff, built 10 metres above street level between 1930 and 1934, and deemed so valuable to the people of New York that a preservation order was slapped on it in 2002.

And now here we are on that same stretch, standing between two giant legs of the stuff - support struts for an 18-storey hotel built in 2009 - that has outraged some of the people who helped secure that preservation order. "It's a disgrace," says a woman in her 60s of The Standard, the neo-modernist hotel that straddles the concrete decking with all the arrogance of a building that's just wandered in from the set of Mad Men. "I can't believe they let them do this."

The angry preservationist is a member of the volunteer support group called Friends of the High Line. She's referring to the planning decision that deemed 10 metres of airspace above the concrete decking off-limits to the hotel's developers but anything above that open slather. So it is that The Standard has, as it were, a foot in both camps.

Compromise or cop-out? There's no doubt of the view held by many of the Friends in the guided architectural tour I've joined this balmy spring evening. For my money, it's a nifty accommodation and The Standard is a great 1960s-style building made better by virtue of being ever so slightly humanised.

But the tension is understandable. The High Line exists only because of the efforts of a small group of residents who in the 1980s and '90s fought against developers wanting to demolish this stretch of steel-and-concrete decking. The structure was built in the 1930s as a railway link between the massive warehouses of the Meatpacking District on Manhattan's lower west side. (The railway was built in the air because so many pedestrians at street level were killed by the freight trains in the bustling area in the 1920s.)

It didn't even have a name when they began their battle - the "High Line" was coined in 1999 by the Friends' founders, Joshua David and Robert Hammond, as a canny way of conferring identity on a piece of urban detritus - but the battle to preserve it soon gained support. In 2002, the city deemed it worth saving. In 2004, plans for a proposed aerial parkway were unveiled. And in June 2009 the first stage of the refurbished space was finally opened to the public.

The park is a miracle of repurposing, turning a picturesque but derelict relic of the industrial era into an appealing and functional asset of the post-industrial age. Nods to its past abound - the heavy-duty "pool chairs" set on railway wheels and movable along small sections of track are particularly witty - but this is very much a space for the present.

The High Line runs over nine city blocks from Gansevoort Street in the south to 20th Street in the north. When the second stage, to 30th street, is finished - scheduled in spring this year - it will be more than twice that length.

There's also another section, known as the Rail Yards, whose future is uncertain. If it is incorporated into the park as the Friends hope, the whole thing will be almost 2.5 kilometres long.

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The High Line is less than 30 metres across at its widest point and barely a third of that at its narrowest but given the price and scarcity of land in Manhattan, crafting a new public park of this scale today is almost as great an achievement as the creation of that other treasure in the middle of the island, Central Park, in the 1850s.

I was lucky enough to visit the High Line twice last year. The first time was in winter, when the concrete slab decking was dabbed with snow and the gardens were almost barren, the wild grasses reduced to sad-looking tufts of brown, the trees stripped of foliage. It could have been a forlorn place but it wasn't: simply being able to walk through such an architecturally fascinating part of Manhattan and to feel as if you're part of it while also hovering above it, is a fantastic feeling.

It was on my second visit in late spring that the true wonder of the High Line became obvious. This time the garden beds were bursting with life, the trees seemingly doubled in height in the space of a few months, the many meeting areas well used. A fabulous reed pond was nearing completion. A timber-clad amphitheatre with a glass wall overlooking Tenth Avenue looked like the perfect place to sit and watch the drama of New York City unfold below. Young couples, many with kids in strollers, were everywhere - a small wonder, given the scarcity of lift access.

In its abandoned years, wild plants grew in the spaces between the sleepers on the old railway. The new plantings are well planned but they deliberately retain a sense of that wildness.

At the northern end of stage one there's a painting hung off a wire-mesh fence, the landscape on the work seeming to merge with the ongoing rejuvenation located on the other side of the fence. Whether it's intended or not, it works perfectly as a metaphor for the entire project (though what happens to it when stage two opens is anyone's guess).

The Friends of the High Line run regular events, from music and theatre to guided tours such as the one I took with architectural historian, Matt Postal. You don't need an excuse to visit but you do need one not to cap it off with a visit to the cocktail bar on the top floor of The Standard.

It's a stunning room, full of stunning people, with a stunning cocktail list (not to mention the tab). But the view is the real reason to visit. Look to the south and you'll see the towers of the financial district. Look north and you'll see the Empire State Building and other treasures of Midtown. Look anywhere around the room and you'll see some of New York's most beautiful humans. It's the perfect place to end a visit to the High Line, though convincing a High Line Friend to join you here for a drink could prove rather difficult.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

United Airlines has a fare to New York for about $1350 low-season return, from Sydney to Los Angeles (15hr 19 min) then New York (5hr 30min). Melbourne passengers fly via Sydney; fare is from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax. Australians must apply for US travel authorisation before departure at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov. You will need a credit card to pay the $14 fee.

Walking there

The High Line is open daily 7am-8pm in winter. When the second section of the High Line, from West 20th to West 30th streets, opens to the public in spring, it will double the length of the park. Access to the High Line is possible via Gansevoort Street, 14th Street (lift access), 16th Street (lift access), 18th Street and 20th Street. During spring and summer, Friends of the High Line runs free, guided tours of the park on Saturdays at 11am. See thehighline.org.

Staying there

The Standard Hotel has rooms from $US295 ($295), see standardhotels.com/new-york-city.

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