The High Line

Section 1, running from Gansevoort Street to 20th Street.

In the heart of Central Park, or Fort Tryon Park farther uptown or Prospect Park in Brooklyn, you can almost forget you’re in the city. The street sounds fade to near silence, and the canopy of trees obscures much of the skyline. That’s part of the fun of visiting—the convenient escape.

The High Line, by contrast, makes no pretensions at escape. It is an unabashedly urban park, an abandoned elevated railway once slated for demolition but now lovingly repurposed as public green space above the busy city streets. The design embraces the park’s industrial history, with benches evoking railway ties, and celebrates the plants that found a home there when the line fell into disuse and neglect. Visiting the High Line, you never leave the city, never even pretend to, but you glimpse it from a different angle, taking in the old buildings and new buildings and the Hudson River and the greenery all at once. It’s an interesting experience, an elegant experiment in conservation in a dense city.

Only about a third of the park is complete. Eventually, it will extend from the Meatpacking District to the old West Side Railyards on 34th Street, nearly a mile and a half in length, but for now it terminates at 20th Street. However brief, though, the walk up the first section is a striking one. The gardens, packed with native grasses and flowers and trees, are truly beautiful, and even though they have been planted by professionals (the original pioneer flora had to be removed when the structure was being rehabilitated for the public), the greenery still has an alluringly wild quality about it.

The city views are fun, too. The walkway snakes under large buildings, past old brownstones and shiny new galleries. One deck sits directly above the intersection of 10th Avenue and West 17th Street, allowing people to perch above the traffic and gaze directly up 10th into midtown. At another point, pedestrians get a full-on view of the floor-to-ceiling windows of the Standard Hotel—an unusually, uh, intimate way to people-watch. (Not that Sean and I saw much of anything when we visited the park, but the potential for exhibitionism at the Standard has been a minor, Post-fueled local scandal, so hell, we figured it was our civic duty to look.)

But one can gawk at people and architecture almost anywhere in the city. The High Line’s status as a park is makes it special. The paradox of tenderly maintained wilderness is rather sweet, and in a small way, the project reminds me of post-apocalyptic movies such as I Am Legend, in which nature has reclaimed the deserted city space. The High Line doesn’t have anywhere near that kind of scope, but it has the same kind of surreal beauty—and humanity didn’t even have to die off to bring it about!