In the three years since the High Line opened, it has become New York’s favorite park. Planted on the abandoned elevated railroad tracks that cross more than 20 blocks of the Meatpacking District, West Chelsea, and Hell’s Kitchen, the High Line is a unique public space, where people can get away from the city for a moment and look down on the hustle and bustle from a calm garden space. In On the High Line, lifelong New Yorker Annik La Farge thoroughly presents the park and its environs, providing histories of the railroad and its transformation over the years, the buildings around it, the changing nature of the neighborhoods it traverses, and its plants and wildlife.
The High Line’s originality springs from not only its situation as a park that provides panoramic urban views, but also from the fact that it has been planted with grasses and flowers not usually found in a public park or garden. La Farge takes the reader through the many plant species chosen by the High Line’s garden designer, Piet Oudolf, to complement the motif of “wildness” that runs through the park. Oudolf’s notion that the plants must be interesting in all stages of life (including death) accounts for the High Line’s popularity throughout the year, even during cold and windy winters.
What I found most intriguing about On the High Line was its vivid history of life in and around the raised tracks. The High Line was constructed in the 1930s so that trains coming into the city could bypass the increasing amount of street traffic. This was more than convenience for commuters. Keeping the trains out of the street also addressed safety issues. Pedestrian deaths had become such a huge problem that the city started hiring “West Side Cowboys,” men on horses who trotted in front of trains and warned people to get out of the way.
Raising the train tracks presented opportunities for above-ground loading docks at the factories along the High Line. These included what would later become the Nabisco cookie factory, the Otis Elevator Company, which built elevators for the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building, and numerous meatpackers. Other buildings along the High Line later housed experiments relating to the Manhattan Project and hosted bohemian gatherings with the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre and Andy Warhol. The docks to the west of the High Line once accommodated the Lusitania and served as a drop-off point for survivors of the Titanic. The history of the High Line is, in a sense, a microcosmic history of New York itself.
Consisting of a compilation of beautiful color images complemented by short paragraphs and essays describing the history, plants, and buildings of the High Line, On the High Line: Exploring America’s Most Original Urban Park reads as a guide book (it includes a pull-out map) as well as an in-depth introduction to the history of New York. The High Line’s public art displays and surrounding galleries only play a minor role in the narrative, which instead focuses on the High Line itself as the work of art. A mobile app of On the High Line will be available next month, providing visitors with individualized private tours to “the new generation’s Central Park.”
On the High Line: Exploring America’s Most Original Urban Park
by Annik La Farge
New York: Thames & Hudson, 2012
218 pages, 400+ color illustrations, $29.95