Walking the High Line

The opening of the Manhattan High Line on June 12 attracted thousands of people during its first week, including me. I was so favorably impressed that I returned yesterday to walk it again. This time I tried out one of the chic, well-placed wooden lounge chairs long enough to read a section of the Sunday New York Times, shielded from the sun by a hastily constructed newspaper hat. It was a heavenly experience, even on a day where clouds chased the sun away every few minutes: before me was a view of the Hudson River; behind me the rooftops of low-lying buildings and the towers of high rises. The High Line is Manhattan’s newest public space, created atop a derelict elevated train track once slated for demolition. Partially modeled on a high line in Paris, the Manhattan High Line has been in the planning stages for several years. It is a city project funded with the help of Friends of the High Line, including several large donors. 

What has opened is the first phase of the three planned sections: it begins in the West Village (entrance at Washington and Ganesvoort Sts. which is not all that easy to find) and proceeds north to 20th St. in Chelsea. The surrounding area has much to offer residents and tourists alike: contemporary art galleries, restaurants, cafes and shops like Chelsea Market; a big sports complex called Chelsea Piers; and Hudson River Park, through which runs an esplanade with bicycle and walking lanes that continues to Battery Park and extends, less grandly, around the perimeter of Manhattan, with just a few still unfinished portions (patience, cyclists!). 

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Cities need beautiful, imaginative and people-friendly public spaces, however small, because urban life is lived on the streets and at street level. Perhaps that is the particular attraction of the High Line: its walkway is placed a few stories above ground level. On a stifling summer day, that location grants a breeze between buildings and shade beneath a few buildings. In any season the High Line offers views of the city—the streets, the skyline, and the river all at once—one seldom, if ever, sees. And no wheels are allowed: no bikes, no skates, no skateboards, no scooters. 

The planners and designers deserve many accolades. They have furnished a viewing platform where people can see their city as it forever changes shape, new architecture alongside the old. They have kept the “old track” character, complete with sections of rusted track; wild, even weedlike flowering plants that belie the careful attention and drip watering they receive; discrete lighting fixtures, and an attractive variety of wooden seating that looks like fine built-in deck furniture. And they have made possible a variety of experiences in a small space by using  different levels, several on-and-off points, and undertanding the attraction of a 360 degree view. 

The most playful surprise so far comes just past 16th St. Walkers come to a sunken ampitheater where the boxlike rows of seating look beneath an old iron bridge toward a large glass window that frames a swath of the street beneath. City life becomes the play you are watching, though, for close-ups, one can always look around at the other spectators gathered and walking by. Yesterday, I walked the street beneath this spot and as I approached it saw, suspended in mid-air like a chorus of angels, a group of High Liners watching me watching them. 

For slideshows, videos and more information see www.thehighline.org.

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