Sunday, November 21, 2010

The High Line

The High Line was originally constructed as part of the New York Central’s West Side Improvement, an infrastructure development project, during the 1930s. The project removed dangerous trains from the bustling streets of Manhattan’s industrial district by lifting freight traffic 30 feet into the air. Although tucked up and out of the way, the High Line structure was still considered to be a dangerous place within the city. The High Line runs through three dynamic neighborhoods: the Meatpacking District, West Chelsea, and Hell’s Kitchen. The High Line was abandoned during the late 1970s, and in the mid 1980s, a group of property owners lobbied for demolition of the structure. In 1999, a community-based non-profit group, the Friends of the High Line, formed to protect the historic structure from demolition. In 2008, the plans were released for the construction of an elevated greenway along the abandoned tracks. The fervent effort to preserve New York's industrial past has increased over the decades. With restorations and improvements being made to longstanding structures in New York, such as the rebuilding on Pennsylvania Station in the 1960s and the hysteria that ensued due to the lack of regard for historic preservation, New Yorkers now desire some trace of the city's industrial heritage. The construction of the High Line is an example of the city's attempts to bridge the gap between modern development of the limited city space and preservation of the city's past.

Currently, the High Line project is under construction and portions of the newly developed greenway are open to the public. The tracks are incorporated into the pathways that pedestrians are able to walk, transforming this once dangerous location into a place that individuals are encouraged to linger with friends and families. Benches, walkways, lookout towers, and art spaces are built into the environment. Perhaps the most interesting is the theatre-like seating and glass wall installed at 10th Avenue to gaze out onto the street level below – suggesting a theatre for everyday life. The tracks that were once overgrown with wild grasses, plants, shrubs, and rugged trees due to natural regeneration are now purposefully landscaped with rustic plants. This controlled environment attempts to replicate the natural overgrown look in this urban landscape.

On multiple fronts, this landscape can be read as unnatural and counter-intuitive even for the native New Yorker. Based on social conventions, for many years, this place has been interpreted as a dangerous place, a place to avoid. With the beautiful renovations, however, the High Line is now becoming a popular place to congregate or to take a stroll. Yet, while standing on the High Line tracks, surrounded by leafy trees and looking down onto the crowded, urban landscape of Chelsea, something still feels unsettling, as if visitors are prohibited from standing on the tracks. No warning signs are displayed on site, no blocked entryways, or the usual semiotic markers of exclusion, but there is something about being in the space that feels counter-intuitive. Perhaps, it is the contrasts usage and how the function of the site has changed with time.

The contrast between green and urban spaces is also constant battle that is confronted in large cities. The creation of new and creative green spaces in NYC is productive, especially due to the limited amount of square footage available for development. It is unusual that the landscaping along the High Line is designed purposefully to appear as if the tracks are overgrown. Usually, the green features within parks are designed to appear well-groomed and purposeful. The man-made elements along the High Line are constructed to appear wild and natural, yet somewhat tamed and manicured. This rugged appearance complements the overwhelming feeling of uncertainty of whether or not the visitor should be walking the tracks. The urban aesthetic of abandonment and decay is understood by New Yorkers and in some ways comforting.

Although the visitor experiences uncertainty while walking the High Line greenway, the space demonstrates how the function of a site can change over time, and yet, some traces of the past manage to remain – whether it is physical structures or the memories of the use space. Like the neighborhood it is constructed in, the High Line is a dynamic space currently under the process of transformation. The site challenges the intuitive perceptions of the visitor and encourages members of the community to rethink the ongoing relationship that exists between the past and the present.

--Katie Caljean


Stephen said...

It doesn't feel so odd to me to be walking on the high line, but this may be because of my time in Chicago. First, most of the lines in Chicago are elevated rather than underground. More pertinently, a number of the lines have been abandoned for a long time- they haven't yet been made into parkland, although there is talk of doing so. While such spaces were not explicitly intended as recreational spaces however, my xc team appropriated them as such, running for miles along abandoned (or sometimes still in use) tracks. I'm sure the high line had and has all sorts of unintentional uses as well, although it seems as though it would have been difficult to run along them. It might be fun to do an analysis of them using the idea of residential agency...

Matthew Teti said...

I think that the anxiety of "uncertainty" you've identified as a residue of the High Line lies in its verisimilitude. It is not a transformation, or not enough of a transformation, to be regarded as a step forward in the restructuring of the neighborhood. It's not a park, but not an abandoned post-industrial wasteland. Rather, it is a liminal space, whose effect is disquiet, not relaxation (which should be the goal of creating such a space). It is for this reason that I think the project, as realized thus far, is a failure. I have no desire to go there. It feels creepy and very forced.