Fred A. Bernstein

Get Ready for the High Line

How Robert Hammond and Joshua David Saved the Elevated Railway

Published in Surface, December 25, 2004

To understand how much Robert Hammond and Joshua David have accomplished in the four years since they decided to try to save a rusting hulk of a rail line on the West Side of Manhattan, you only need to visit the office of the New York Jets. There, on a conference room wall, are renderings of a new, 70,000-seat, retractable-roof stadium that would dominate the neighborhood between the Hudson River and Penn Station. In the renderings, the old rail line snakes around the stadium, but it's been turned into a verdant pedestrian promenade. Jay Cross, president of the Jets, might be expected to view the High Line, built in the 1930's and abandoned in the 1980's, as an annoyance; instead, he is committed to incorporating it into the team's new $1 billion home.

But by the time Cross's stadium is built, the High Line may be more than just a promenade. Picture a mile long swimming pool, raised 30 feet above Manhattan. A roller coaster swooping through a neighborhood of galleries and trendy restaurants. Or a dairy farm � where the cows see skyscrapers instead of silos.

"Everyone has an idea for what to do with the High Line," says Hammond. To tap into that creativity, his advocacy group, Friends of the High Line, sponsored an international "ideas competition. " More than 700 entries poured in, from 38 countries. And now Hammond and David are working to see how many of those ideas can be incorporated into actual redevelopment plans.

As Hammond says, "It's not enough to just save the High Line. We have to turn it into one of the most amazing public spaces in the world."

Until David and Hammond began organizing, the city was in favor of tearing down the line, which was built to carry freight trains to factories in Chelsea and the Meat Market. Real estate developers saw it as an impediment, even an eyesore. But to what might have been a silent majority of Manhattan residents, including a large number of artists, architects and writers, the High Line was not only an important reminder of how New York became New York, but also a precious bit of open space in an increasingly dense urban center.

Hammond is happy to show it off: After unlocking a gate just south of Manhattan's Javits Center, he enters the rubble-strewn field that marks the northern terminus of the line. On steel supports strong enough to carry freight trains, the elevated platform is now populated by grasses, wildflowers and the occasional vagrant. Following Hammond south, onto the High Line's seven-acres of greenery (greener still after June's record rainfall), you can't believe you're in Manhattan.

In 1999, Hammond, a painter, and David, a magazine writer, happened to sit next to each other at a community board meeting, and discovered that they shared a vision. Soon they had created an organization, Friends of the High Line, and enlisted prominent allies -- including Martha Stewart (whose office overlooks the line), Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg, Ed Norton (the grandson of James Rouse, the developer of Boston's Quincy Market and Baltimore's Inner Harbor) and Kevin Bacon (the son of Edmund Bacon, whose book Design of Cities is still the standard text on that subject). They also bought the photographer Joel Sternfeld onto the High Line because, as David says, "Not everyone can get up there to see it." Sternfeld's photos, published in the New Yorker, helped alert the public to astonishing "linear park" in the city's midst.

Still, the city government, under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, was in favor of demolishing the High Line. Leaving nothing to chance, Hammond and David lobbied all of the candidates for mayor in 2001. Michael Bloomberg proved to be their most ardent supporter, and his victory ensured that the High Line had a future. Now the city is including the line in its rezoning plan for the West Side, and City Council speaker Gifford Miller has allocated $16 million for the project. That's $16 million more than anyone ever expected the city government to spend on the abandoned line.

And so the ideas competition. Once again, Hammond and David had no trouble attracting an A list, in this case competition advisor Reed Kroloff, and a jury that included the dean of Columbia's architecture school (Bernard Tschumi), the chairman of the giant architecture firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (Marilyn Jordan Taylor) and the designer of MIT's futuristic Simmons Hall (Stephen Holl).

The jury spent a long day reviewing the 700-plus proposals. Several were from well-known architects, including the Iranian-born Hariri sisters, who proposed using the High Line as a venue for the 2012 Olympics, and the museum designer Richard Gluckman. A number of competitors included swimming pools or rowing courses (one promised a "Head of the High Line Regatta" in summer, curling and ice skating in winter). Roller coasters appeared in half a dozen entries. Some competitors retained the railroad tracks, which would be used either by vintage train cars, or by newfangled transporters.

There was a dark side to some of the entries, including one that used the spaces between the girders as prison cells. But many were lighthearted, with waterfalls and windmills as bucolic apparitions. All addressed the daunting problem of how to give the public easy access to the High Line, which sweeps past fourth-floor windows without much opportunity for ramps or stairways. The vertical transportation solutions ranged from crystalline elevators to a giant seesaw (proposed by Michael Rock, of the hot graphic design firm 2x4).

Now Hammond and David have to manage another transition. After soliciting public input, they will look for an architect capable of taking the High Line into its second century. At the same time, their Friends of the High Line is expected to morph into a downtown equivalent of the Central Park Conservancy, which will put it in charge of the massive construction project.

All of that will cost money. David and Hammond have proven to be skilled fundraisers. But, David says, "We still think of ourselves as the underdogs, and we have a lot of work ahead of us. Until construction starts, I won't be able to accept that the High Line has been saved."