The Inside Track On New York City's High Line

Originally published on May 23, 2012 11:28 am

In August 1999, Joshua David walked into a community board meeting in New York City's Chelsea neighborhood.

People were debating what to do with an old, elevated rail track that ran through the neighborhood between Gansevoort and 34 Street. It had been abandoned since 1980. Before that, it was built to haul goods into the city's meatpacking district.

David thought it was kind of a cool old relic, and he thought other people would feel the same.

"I went into that meeting thinking, 'Oh, we'll find some historic preservation group that's all into this,'" David tells weekends on All Things Considered guest host Laura Sullivan. "We'll just give them 20 bucks, lick a few envelopes and feel good about it."

But there were no groups. No one wanted to save the old track — except for one other guy at the meeting, Robert Hammond.

Neither David nor Hammond had ever been to a community board meeting before, but they exchanged business cards and decided to start a nonprofit, Friends of the High Line. With a few more meetings and some fliers, they thought, maybe they could convince the city not to demolish the old track.

"My mom asked me, 'What's the chances of it happening?'" Hammond says. "I said, 'You know, 1 in 100.'"

It took 10 years of fundraising, permit applications, feasibility studies, and wooing city and state officials, but Hammond and David beat those odds. They tell the story of how they did it in a book out next month, High Line: The Inside Story of New York City's Park in the Sky.

Early Opposition

Today, the High Line is one of Manhattan's most popular public spaces: a mile-long, modern, high-concept park built on the old railroad track. In the 10 months after it opened in 2009, it drew 2 million visitors and — in a rare ratio for a public space in New York — about half were tourists. Half were native New Yorkers.

There are hints in the modern park of the High Line's history: You can see the original rail tracks sticking out from areas of shrubs and trees. These rails date back to the 1930s, when they carried trains loaded with goods into the meatpacking district on tracks that ran along 10th Avenue.

The last train ran in 1980. "It was a trainload of frozen turkeys coming into the meat market," Hammond says, "to give New Yorkers turkeys for Thanksgiving."

Over the next 20 years, many people in the neighborhood came to view the High Line as an eyesore and wanted it torn down. Many thought it was holding up development of the neighborhood.

"Mayor [Rudy] Giuliani really wanted to demolish the High Line," Hammond says. "One of his last acts in office — two days before he left — was signing the demolition order."

By that time, Hammond and David had the support of Chelsea's gay and art communities. The two eventually gained support from celebrities like fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg and actor Edward Norton, both of whom contributed to a growing list of benefactors funding legal efforts to save the High Line.

Early on, no one had any big plans for a park. They just wanted to keep the track around.


For Hammond and David, the "holy grail" of saving the High Line was something called a Certificate of Interim Trail Use, or CITU.

Issued by the Surface Transportation Board, a CITU allows the government to "bank" out-of-use rail corridors as trails on the grounds that the country might need them again. The term of art is "rail-banking." Without a certificate to rail-bank it, the land beneath the High Line would have been lost to local owners and developers.

"We originally thought we could just apply and get one, they way you'd send away for a prize by mailing in a couple of cereal box tops," David writes in High Line.

After five years of fundraising, permit applications and even a lawsuit against the city, they had their CITU authorizing development of two-thirds of the full High Line.

"Nothing more stood in our way," David writes. "We could break ground."

A few years later, Hammond and David were on a roll. They'd settled on a design team to work around a "wildscape" of weeds and wildflowers. They'd secured both city and federal funding, including $18 million that came with the help of then-Sen. Hillary Clinton.

They'd wooed the Bloomberg administration with an economic feasibility study that showed the High Line would easily double its original $150 million cost in tax revenue from increased property values in the area. (That revenue figure has since been raised to nearly half a billion dollars.)

Still Wild

If you start at its southern terminus and walk the entire length of the High Line, you eventually arrive at a locked fence at 30th Street. Hammond and David have the combination.

One the other side is the final, undeveloped third stretch of the High Line. It goes all the way around Manhattan's west side rail yards.

Hammond and David are trying to secure development rights for this part of the High Line. For now, it's just the way they found it years ago: nothing but rusty railroad tracks and waist-high weeds.

"To me," Hammond says on a tour of the site, "this was the magic we wanted to save. Like right now, we're alone. It's just us, up here [in] this private garden right in the middle of New York."

Hammond says he was always secretly fearful he wouldn't like the new park as much as the old, secret High Line.

"What's made me so happy is that I like the new park better," he says. "The design influences the way people interact.

"I always notice when you're up on the High Line you see people holding hands. And you don't see that, just in people walking down the street. New Yorkers don't do it. But on the High Line they hold hands, and so I think that's the testimony of it really working."

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LAURA SULLIVAN, host: In New York City, in Manhattan's famed Meatpacking District, you can look up and see an old railroad line about as wide as four cars. It looks like a black iron bridge. But then on a street corner, there's a staircase. And as you climb up and touch the black iron, it opens into a place unlike any other.


SULLIVAN: It's another world called the High Line, a park two stories above the ground on top of the old railroad track. It's a winding path framed by trees and grasses and wildflowers. A place so improbable, it's difficult to understand how it even exists.

But if you walk for a bit, you'll see a small plaque on a wall explaining how it all got here.

ROBERT HAMMOND: In 1999 with the High Line threatened with demolition, neighborhood residents Joshua David and Robert Hammond formed Friends of the High Line to advocate for the preservation and reuse of the structure.

SULLIVAN: This is Robert Hammond, by the way, one of the guys on the plaque.

HAMMOND: The goal was to create a public landscape as unusual and unexpected as the High Line itself.

SULLIVAN: The other guy on the plaque, Joshua David, is with me too.

JOSHUA DAVID: So there you have the whole story, you don't really need me.


SULLIVAN: So, you know, people might read that and think, you know, this Joshua David and Robert Hammond, they're just two, like, rich guys who came in and threw a bunch of money down and created the High Line. Is that really what happened?



SULLIVAN: What happened is the subject of a new book co-written by Robert and Josh. It's called "High Line: The Inside Story of New York City's Park in the Sky." That story starts like this: Robert and Josh met at a community board meeting in 1999. People were talking about what to do with the old high line. It'd been abandoned for 20 years. Just about everyone wanted it torn down.

DAVID: And I thought Robert was cute, and so in that room of people, I thought, well, I'll sit next to the cute guy.


SULLIVAN: Robert and Josh never got together in that way.

DAVID: And I think that was the last time he ever thought I was cute.


SULLIVAN: But they did get together. And together, these two guys with no experience in advocacy or organizing or fundraising, Josh was a travel writer and Robert worked at an Internet start-up - these two guys became a force to be reckoned with.

Over 10 years, they formed a nonprofit, galvanized a community, fought the city and built one of the most unusual parks in the country. Now more than two million visitors a year come here, and most start at the bottom of that flight of stairs where we met Josh and Robert.

DAVID: We're standing under the High Line at the southern end at the corner of Gansevoort and Washington Street in New York City's Meatpacking District.

SULLIVAN: Josh and Robert know every foot of this park. They helped design it. And on this day, they gave us a rare insider's tour.

HAMMOND: And over our heads, we're under this really massive steel structure with these heavy black steel beams covered with rivets where freight trains used to run over our head.

DAVID: And this is what I fell in love with, with the steel structure, yeah. And then once we went up on top, there was this whole other experience, with a mile and a half of wildflowers that had just taken over. And the wildflowers seem, you know, just as strong and just as potent, you know, as the steel structure. And those two things combined, to me, that's what the High Line is.

SULLIVAN: Well, yeah, let's go upstairs and take a look.

HAMMOND: So we're going up what we call the Gansevoort stair because it comes up from Gansevoort Street.

SULLIVAN: All right.

HAMMOND: And you can see also just the grass is already pushing through the glass barriers here, and they're hanging - plants hanging off the edge as we go by. The idea that nature is again taking over this massive structure was something that was very important in the design.

SULLIVAN: This is stunning. This is absolutely beautiful. I mean, these are - I mean, you have trees growing up here. I mean, you - this is incredible.


SULLIVAN: Well, let me ask you guys about this fantastic structure above us. This is the - what is this?

HAMMOND: This is - we're standing underneath the Standard Hotel, which opened almost exactly the same time as the High Line opened in 2009. But it reflects back to the historic relationship of building to the High Line. It's when it was originally conceived - in the late 1920s, it was conceived as a rail line that would pull up next to buildings, connect to them with siding, go through buildings. So this is a modern interpretation of the way that buildings used to relate to the High Line.

DAVID: You know, it's also well-known for us. When it opened, there were a lot of stories about people watching people having sex in the windows from the High Line.


DAVID: And you can still see sometimes people will just stop right over there and just stare up. I mean, I've come up here a lot, and I always look. But, you know, you don't see things that often. So I think people that stay there now knows that, you know, close your curtain.

HAMMOND: I have to stop for a second because there are a bunch of things that are happening here that are sort of important. We're standing on a part of the High Line that's called the Diller-Von Furstenberg Sundeck. And it has all of these people who are sitting out on these big benches basking in the sun. We're coming up on also another great feature of the High Line, water feature on the sundeck where the water is just skimming over the surface of the walkway. And you can take off your shoes like those guys over there and those kids further on.

DAVID: You can also see that the sun deck chairs are laid along the tracks. And as we've been walking along, you know, sometimes you notice the old rail tracks sticking out from the planting. So this piece of rail was originally in this exact position.

SULLIVAN: Now, why did you have to do that?

DAVID: We didn't have to. You know, it's part of - this is one of the clues to people that it was a railroad. You know, it gives you these little hints of what the - you know, what the High Line - here's a little girl that's come up in her bathing suit, you know, to walk in the...

SULLIVAN: So cute. It makes me want to put my feet in it. Describe for me sort of that final legal push, the big win that you guys got that allowed you to create other parks.

DAVID: You know, there wasn't one moment. But I think the biggest legal piece was when the city came on board. Giuliani really wanted to demolish the High Line. One of his last acts in office, two days before he left office, was signing the demolition order. So when the Bloomberg administration reversed that decision, you know, that was probably one of the biggest pieces.

HAMMOND: And then we - when Mayor Bloomberg came into office, we did a whole economic feasibility study to show how the High Line would actually generate funds for the city through increasing property values around it. It was a very complex process.

SULLIVAN: Tell me where we are right now. What is this?

DAVID: This is one of my favorite features. And it's this spot where the High Line crosses 10th Avenue. So the designers had this thought of creating this amphitheater that goes down right over 10th Avenue so you can sit and stand and look. So as you can see it right now, the taxis and cars are sort of popping out below you. It almost feels like you're in a video game.

HAMMOND: The other thing that's amazing about this 10th Avenue Square feature is it turns the life of the screen really sort of into theater that you watch. A very mundane aspect of New York City life becomes theatrical. Like, this whole time we've been talking, there have been these two people down there trying to get a cab. They don't know that this is the hour in New York you can't get a cab. So I'm guessing they're from out of town because they would have given up by now if they - oh, they just got one. Yeah.

DAVID: She got one. She got one.

SULLIVAN: You said that you had some low moments in 2008 when the stock market crashed. Can you tell me about the party?

HAMMOND: Yeah. It was a scary - you know, it was a scary time. We do every year a dinner called the High Line Chef's Dinner at Tom Colicchio's restaurant. And the first year we did it, it was just festive and fun. And then the second year was the night that Lehman Brothers collapsed. Half the people had to leave early and half the other people were left, you know staring into their BlackBerrys trying to figure out what was going on.

DAVID: 9/11, you know, was another example where, you know, I thought it was just over. I mean, not just the city, but selfishly, when I was standing on my roof watching the towers come down, one of my first thoughts was, well, you know, there goes the High Line too.

HAMMOND: Josh's and I first reaction was, OK, you know, we can't even talk to anyone about this.

DAVID: But people started calling us - what are we going to do, what are we - you know, people got more excited.

SULLIVAN: Now, if you walk the entire length of the High Line, which we did, you eventually get to a locked gate at the northern end.

HAMMOND: So people are very envious that we're going through this fence right now.

SULLIVAN: On the other side, Section 3. This third section of the High Line has yet to be started. It stretches all the way around the West Side Rail Yard. CSX still owns this portion. Robert and Josh don't have the money to develop it yet. Private donors spent $150 million on the first two sections. For now, it's still what they call wild.

What we're looking at right now, this is what you first saw that day that you came up here. I mean, old, rusty railroad tracks, weeds as high as your waist.

HAMMOND: And these are going to open up these rooms (unintelligible) when we first came up here in September, and so that's the thing I remember is wading through...

DAVID: Yeah. These - it'll all turn white. It's like snow (unintelligible).

HAMMOND: know, right at your waist of these, sort of snowy flowers and (unintelligible), sort of wading through them. I mean, to me, this was the magic that we wanted to save. And that's what I always thought, how do you capture this kind of feeling? And, like, right now, we're alone. It's just us up here. It's just this private garden, you know, right in the middle of New York.

And it's - the design influences the way people interact and changes their feeling and their perception of the city and I think their perception of each other. I always noticed that, you know, when you're up on the High Line, you see people holding hands. And I started thinking about that. I was like, you don't see that just in people walking down the street, and, you know, it's just not - New Yorkers don't do it. But, you know, on the High Line, they hold hands, and so I think that's, to me, the testimony of it really working.

SULLIVAN: Joshua David and Robert Hammond, who wrote "High Line: The Inside Story of New York City's Park in the Sky," on top of the unfinished section of the High Line above where? Where are we?

HAMMOND: 30th and 10th Avenue.

SULLIVAN: Above 30th and 10th Avenue. Thanks, you guys, so much for this wonderful tour. It's incredible.

HAMMOND: Thanks.

DAVID: It's been great doing it. Thank you for coming up.

HAMMOND: Thanks for coming up.

SULLIVAN: There's so much more from our walk with Robert and Josh, like food on the High Line.

HAMMOND: I heard you have avocado today.


HAMMOND: That's my favorite.

SULLIVAN: His favorite popsicle. Robert got several.

HAMMOND: Oh, and I get the High Line discount?

SULLIVAN: Art installations.

DAVID: When you press the water fountain button, this artist's piece comes up. Her name is Julia Schwartz.

SULLIVAN: Celebrity stories.

HAMMOND: And I was just typing away one day and the phone rang and a voice on the other end said, this is Edward Norton. I'm looking for the High Line guys.

SULLIVAN: You can hear all that and more in a special podcast this week. If you can make it to the High Line, it makes a great walking tour. Find it at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.