High Line’s New Stretch Has Wildflowers, Lawn, Views: Interview

High Line Park
A construction worker completes the 23rd Street Lawn at the second phase of the High Line Park in New York. 1.45 miles long, it's built on a railroad viaduct that had been abandoned for 30 years. Photographer: James S. Russell/Bloomberg

The High Line, a hairline of greenery running 22 blocks atop a nearly forgotten railroad viaduct, has improbably become a global phenomenon.

Threading its way between factories tangled with water tanks and fire escapes, the dilapidated viaduct was turned into a park in 2009 and now attracts human traffic jams.

A neighbor has put on coy fire-escape performances. I hear that guests in a hotel that looms above the park sometimes undress for the pleasure of the strolling throngs.

Tomorrow, the second stage of the $153-million park opens, stretching 10 blocks from 20th Street in Manhattan’s West Chelsea, to 30th Street -- more than doubling the length of the first phase.

Last week, I walked the new stretch with two of the park’s designers, Ricardo Scofidio, a principal at the architecture firm of Diller Scofidio and Renfro, and James Corner, the landscape architect, who is principal of James Corner Field Operations.

Curious folks pressed noses against the dividing chain link fence that is about to come down.

Corner smiled, remembering when his client -- the nonprofit Friends of the High Line -- worried no one would come.

From the 1930s, freight trains fed factories lining the High Line. In what became the first section of the park, “the tracks turned and twisted and tunneled through buildings,” explained Scofidio, “but you always felt yourself moving through a much larger space in the city.”

What’s New

The new section is narrower and straight from 18th Street all the way up to 30th Street.

We walked north through a jungle-like thicket, which opens to a sun-splashed rectangle of lawn. This bit of traditional park presents a startling contrast to the restored criss-crossing railroad tracks and the riot of plantings selected by Piet Oudolf, a celebrated Dutch horticulturalist.

“As we watched people using the first section we saw that they were dying to walk into the planting,” said Scofidio. “The lawn is the one place where people can lie in nature. We have raised it just high enough so that when the sun is in the right place you can glimpse both the Hudson and East Rivers.”

Dark, tropical trees thicken between several high industrial buildings that closely hug the tracks. “These buildings cast the tracks into shade all day long and allowed moisture to accumulate,” Corner said. “Strange twisted trees grew in the shadows and dampness.”

The Flyover

Here a ramp rises a few feet, then branches into viewing platforms. The designers dubbed it the Flyover. The platforms frame neighborhood views and haunting factory remnants. “It feels very industrial with former loading docks coming right up to the edge,” Scofidio added. “You’re aware of the line’s history.”

Corner stopped at the top of the Flyover where an Oz-like vista of a meadow dotted with spiky flowers extends in a thin line toward the distant Midtown skyline.

The stretch is called the Wildflower Field and evokes the riotous meadow once flourishing on defunct tracks.

By now, we’re in the final stretch, which culminates in the 30th Street Cutout.

Scofidio drew my attention over the side. “This is one of my favorite moments, because we delaminate the High Line, exposing the layers of greenery, steel and concrete you have been walking on. You’ll see the cars passing below.”

Beyond, ragged unrenovated meadow tops the viaduct as it circles a massive rail yard filled with commuter trains. The park’s final phase will come with Hudson Yards, the massive mix of housing and commercial towers that will one day loom here.

Brutal Collage

I notice another graded lot destined for development. “There will be big buildings,” said Scofidio.

I asked if he was okay with that.

“The High Line will do quite well no matter what happens around it. When we first came up here and walked the rail bed, we saw how some plants were aware of the sun, others of shade. We realized how opportunistic greenery can be.”

“The power of the High line is its indifference to the stuff around it,” added Corner. “It’s a sort of brutal collage.”

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. Island Press has just published his book, “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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