Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Random Ramblings -- Walking the High Line

Photo 2448 The High Line; New York, New York September 14, 2012
The High Line; New York, N.Y.; September 14, 2012
I was going to start this by saying "let's get off the beaten path a bit," but in reality we're going to take a very well-worn path. This is the High Line, a linear park in New York City that is a huge success. The structure was built by the New York Central and opened in 1934 to access the city's industries along the west side of Manhattan (indeed, it's name during NYC days was the West Side Line) while eliminating street running and grade crossings, but all rail service ceased in 1980.

The current park is about a mile long, extending from 30th Street (not very far from Penn Station) on down to Gansevoort Street. Along the way the line still passes through the second stories of old industrial buildings (notably those that were once a part of Bell Laboratories and Nabisco). During the changeover from abandoned rail line to city park, the right-of-way had to be stripped down to the concrete and steel. When it was reconstructed, it became something of a yuppie interpretation of a rail line. Rails were put back in place, albeit at the wrong gauge and spiked directly to the ties instead of using tie plates. Additionally, the rail was given an abandoned look by planting plants "inspired by the self-seeded landscape that grew on the disused tracks" (to quote that source of all sources, Wikipedia). Along the way you'll encounter a "woodland," a "grassland," and even a "thicket." Nonetheless, the entire structure could have been simply made into a wide walkway instead of the walkway sharing the reminders of the railroad past, so we should be grateful for that. The park was opened in 2009 from the south end to 20th Street, then northward to 30th Street in 2011.

On September 14 I headed out to the High Line with Otto Vondrak (associate editor of Railfan & Railroad magazine) and took a leisurely walk south from 30th Street. It was a pleasant day and we paused along the way for many photos (there were a lot of photographers out), got an ice cream from the lovely ice cream lady stationed under the  Standard Hotel and had some great tacos at the food court located inside what was once the Nabisco plant. There were indeed many sights to see. Surprisingly, we found a diamond (rail, not jewelry) hidden in the shrubs near the south end. To really appreciate the rail heritage of the line, a visit in early spring or late autumn would probably be best when the plants "inspired by the self-seeded landscape" are a bit more dead.

The High Line has been surprisingly successful, but perhaps not in the way the city envisioned. Instead of becoming an oasis for the residents of the neighborhoods, the High Line has attracted a huge tourist trade. Following the tourists into the neighborhoods were the trendy restaurants and boutiques, and some of the last blue collar businesses on the lower West Side have been pushed out of the area. 

The final train on the West Side Line was operated by Conrail in 1980. The train carried three cars of frozen turkeys. Best as I can figure, it was not a winter railfan trip.

(Note: I came up with the title for this entry on my own, then discovered while doing research that there is actually a book called Walking the High Line, a photographic essay by Joel Sternfeld that documented the abandoned line as it looked in 2000-2001. There was no intent to steal Mr. Sternfeld's title [although it should help my Google rankings]).

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