The High Line: Danger Zone to Profit Zone

By 1929, New York’s 10th Avenue was a disaster zone. Due to rail traffic merging with automobile traffic intersecting pedestrian traffic on the avenue, it was frequented by gruesome accidents that coined it the name “Death Avenue.” But this wasn’t anything new; this had actually been going on for almost a century after the rails were put into place in 1846. Freight cars careened along an unorthodox path along tenth and eleventh avenues until they finally reached a terminal at Beach and Hudson and then a final stop at Chambers thereafter, hopefully having not maimed any pedestrians on the way. Tragedies such as the incident of seven-year old Seth Low Hascamp being “ground to death” by a train in 1908 only increased 10th Ave’s grim reputation, causing a march of over 500 school children in response. Despite the city’s attempts to eliminate these accidents, efforts ranging from redirecting pedestrian traffic to sending a man on horseback ahead moving at 6 miles per hour waving a red flag, each effort was hopelessly unsuccessful in doing so. But in 1929, the first real solution to the problem finally came to fruition.

In a desperate effort by the city, the High Line was commissioned as a part of the West Side Improvement Project in order to completely raise rail traffic out of the way of automobile traffic and away from pedestrian paths. Construction began in 1929, and after spending an astronomical $150 million ($2 billion present day), the High Line was hastily completed in 1934.  Quickly following its construction came a revival for the area around it, as industry rose to a high, helping make the meatpacking district and West Chelsea what they are today. A decade after the High Line’s completion, 10th Avenue’s once dreadful reputation had bounced back completely, as the area around the High Line began to once again have the character and vivacity that thriving parts of the city had to offer.

At the same time of this increase of industry around the High Line came another rising industry: the industry of interstate trucking. Picking up more and more speed ahead of railroad transport due to it being safer, cheaper, and faster, the interstate trucking business took much of the life the railroad business and the High Line once had, rendering the two obsolete. This, by the end of the 1950’s, caused the High Line to lose its purpose altogether, only sending off a fraction of its normal cargo, due to Eisenhower’s reform of the interstate highways. As the highways became more accessible and safe, the need for trains dwindled dramatically as trucks rose to popularity. Because of this, the High Line’s southernmost section was demolished in 1960 to make way for property owners in the area. This decline continued until 1980 when the High Line hosted its final train, a small train carrying a load of frozen turkeys. From here on, the High Line’s fate looked grim.

Through the eighties, lobbyists were relentless in their efforts to convince the city to demolish the High Line outright. Their reason was simple: they were property owners in the area who wanted to own more property that could be built on the ruins of the High Line. The High Line, now in disuse, was collecting dust, literally. The site was a wasteland of tough, overgrown weeds that swallowed the track altogether. As the High Line stagnated and became a jungle of weeds, the city came closer and closer to demolishing the landmark. These lobbyists were almost successful, until a certain group came to save the High Line just as it was about to be erased. Just as the site was fated to be demolished, Joshua David and Robert Hammond created the Friends of the High Line foundation, in an effort save the dying landmark.

The Friends of the High Line saw an opportunity to save this historical landmark in a very unorthodox way. One would think that the rebirth of a train line would naturally involve it serving its original function, train traffic, but Hammond and David were inspired by the Promenade in Paris to remake the tracks into a public park. The fight turned into a gridlock between the landowners of the area and the Friends of the High Line, as the former party was fighting for profit, while the latter was fighting for the preservation of a historical landmark. After five years of heated debate over the subject, the fight was won by the Friends of the High Line. The city officially declared the High Line a public park in 2004, and the opening ribbon for the park was cut on June 9, 2009. The city spent $50 million dollars to restore the landmark into a public park. After its restoration, the High Line, once again, brought about a revival of the area.

With the revival of the High Line came the planning and beginning of construction for thirty new projects for the West Chelsea area. These projects created a huge economic boom for the area. This nearly tripled the amount of projects that occurred in the Chelsea and meatpacking district areas during the first revival of the areas due to the High Line. Property values in the area soar at all-time highs today, as the median sales price for three-bedroom apartments there has topped $3.6 million, around a 7 percent increase from three years prior. Sadly, this economic growth has its old residents struggling to keep up with the rising prices of owning property in the area, many being forced to pack up and move out to cheaper areas. Despite this, the economic growth the area has received due to the High Line is staggering, to say the least. In addition to its economic benefits, the new High Line has stood out as a beacon to emulate for city officials across the nation. For example, Ben Helphand, a Chicago official who wishes to mimic this project in Chicago believes, “There’s a nice healthy competition between big American cities. That this has been done in New York puts the onus on us to do it ourselves and to give it a Chicago stamp.” Chicago seeks to emulate what New York has done because the new High Line has caused its area to flourish both economically and literally, offering both profit and a breath of nature in the city. This landmark has gone far and beyond its call of duty; it has rejuvenated the area it is in not only once, but twice, by opening up projects and bringing in people to feed into the community.

Both then, in the thirties, and now, the High Line served to rejuvenate the area it resides in by bringing business and progress to West Chelsea and the meatpacking district. The High Line was able to do this despite serving completely different roles through the ages: first as a transportation rail, and second as a public park. The end result was a rebirth and catharsis for the community around it. This effect shows the power a historical landmark has. Just from standing for nearly a century, the High Line has become one of the most popular and successful locations in the city. People flock to these locations because they give a taste of the nostalgia the past era these locations were in have to offer. The High Line is far more than a public park or a recycled train track, it is a portal back into another New York that can be accessed freely by taking a stroll along its tracks.


Photo Credit:

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.