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Walking the Rails Above Death Avenue: High Noon for the High Line

In the genre of the western, the advent of the railroad marked the transition of a community from a wild natural order to a state of organized civilization. When steam engines replaced horses and the stagecoach, other things followed - lawyers and sheriffs replaced anarchy, and schoolmarms took the place of saloon girls. More railroads began to link region to region, culminating at places like Promontory Point in Utah, in moves that signified national aspirations to empire. Soon, trains engendered their own myths and legends. Bandits held up trains, villains strapped girls to the track, and in the 1930s vagabonds and hobos jumped the cars to vague destinations. So deep is the romance of the rails that kids like me, growing up on stories like Gertrude Chandler Warner's The Boxcar Children, fantasized a life on the tracks and looked for adventure in the right of ways on many a train track.

During the 1840s, the city of New York mistakenly allowed the building of train tracks along Manhattan's West Side. Soon after, trains and street-level vehicles collided in frequent accidents, leading the Eleventh Avenue freight line to be nicknamed "Death Avenue." To provide more safety, the West Side Cowboys were formed, a contingent of several men on horseback who rode ahead of the trains to signal their arrival. In the 1930s a large project to reconfigure the West Side included the relocation of the dangerous tracks to an elevated High Line. Furthermore, the trains could move through factories and warehouses, delivering and picking up supplies. The trains hummed along until they faced competition with interstate trucks, and the southernmost section was torn up in the 1960s. The last train moved through in 1980.



Robert Hammond and Josh David, two West Side residents who shared a vision of repurposing the space as an elevated walk, formed the Friends of the High Line in 1999 and subsequently raised millions of dollars necessary to realize the dream. (See article from NYT, July 2008 ) For years now, many New Yorkers have highly anticipated the moment of its unveiling, to view Manhattan and the river from this new venue and to see out the work of the design team led by James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro. The moment is now. Phase One, the section from Gansevoort to 20th Street, opened to the public this week.


View The High Line in a larger map

The slideshow follows the path from the entrance at Gansevoort and Washington Streets up to West 20th Street. Among the highlights - the plantings of native species, the walkway's serrated plank design, artist Spencer Finch's temporary installation, the sundeck between 14th and 15th Streets, and the 10th Avenue Square, a place that includes an unusual amphitheater as well as surprising views of the Statue of Liberty. The High Line offers particularly good views of Frank Gehry's IAC (CEO Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg are major High Line backers) and its neighbor, Jean Nouvel's 100 Eleventh Avenue, along with the Empire State Building, various industrial oddities, boats in the Hudson, and near the end on W. 20th St., the General Theological Seminary.

As a boho hobo, I have always believed that the act of bumming along the railroad tracks should be interrupted at some point with the serving of cookies and slices of leek and cheese pizza. So, naturally, I was delighted to encounter the presence of carts from City Bakery and its sister, Birdbath Neighborhood Green Bakery, at the entrance and in the not-too-challenging section of the path entering the Chelsea Market.

If the arrival of the railroad in the western signifies the arrival of civilization and its discontents, the deconstruction and renovation of a rail line should symbolize a counter trend - a return to wild beauty and natural balance, and to the more gentle pounding of the earth, even far off the ground, by ordinary feet.

Walking up from the South Village to the High Line and then all the way to W. 20th is a fer piece. But near 23rd Street and 8th Ave, take a staircase down, and you can most often find a train to bring you back.
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The High Line opens every day from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Enter at Gansevoort and Washington streets. See the official High Line website for much more information, including a timeline of its construction, key events, and archival photos of West Side Cowboys.

Picture show images of the High Line by Walking Off the Big Apple, Monday, June 8, 2009. Photo of hobos by unknown photographer, in the collection of the Library of Congress.

Related Post:
Under the High Line: A Guide to Art, Food, Cars and Theology





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