In which I describe an afternoon’s adventures on the High Line.
Beginning in the 1930’s, a freight rail line ran up Manhattan’s West Side, carrying cargo through Manhattan’s disparate neighborhoods, from Spring Street in Greenwich Village, up 13 miles to Spuyten Duyvil at the island’s northern tip. As trucking became the dominant mode of shipping cargo, the elevated rail line carried less traffic. One section was closed and demolished in the 1960s and the last train rolled across the tracks in 1980.
What remains is a mile and a half of untended, elevated right of way, stretching from Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District, through Chelsea, and up to 34th Street.
A group of local property owners are fighting to have the structure demolished, claiming it’s a blight on the cityscape; they also say they could put the land and its air rights to better use if they were allowed to build on it.
Another group, calling itself Friends of the High Line, wishes to renovate the structure into an urban park of the rails-to-trails model. This group cites the success of the Promenade Plantï¿½e in Paris as a model for what the High Line could become for New Yorkers.
The High Line has been in the news lately, as the city decides what to do with the structure. Newsday reported yesterday that although the city is proceeding with plans to convert the rail line into a park, the final decision might rest with the federal Surface Transportation Board.
Knowing all this, I’ve been jonesing to get on the damn thing, even though to do so is to trespass, but I wasn’t sure where or how you access it, until I read an entry at the blog Oblivio, with detailed instructions for getting to the thing.
Okay, Mr. Oblivio writes, enter the big truck lot on 33rd between 11th and 12th. The lot was easy to find, but my first obstacle was the security guard sitting in the guardhouse right inside the fence. If you want to survive in New York, though, you learn quickly how to walk purposefully through any given space. Act like you belong there, and you won’t get trouble.
Or maybe the guard just didn’t give a shit. Either way, I walked in like I belonged there.
Okay, so what’s next on Mr. Oblivio’s instructions? “See that opening in the fence directly across?” Uh, no. No, I don’t. Damn. Now I had the security guard behind me and a fence I couldn’t find, somewhere in front of me. And I had to act quickly if I didn’t want this guy calling the cops.
I started walking through the truckyard. Where the fence should have been, I saw a line of trucks. I could generally see a fence behind them, but I saw no hole. I kept walking, eyeing the fence between the trucks. Eventually, the fence disappeared.
This was good news. What happens here is that the High Line comes to grade at this point, which means in English that it reaches street level, or in this case, lot level. The website Old NYC explains that at this point, the train would enter a tunnel (the portal for which still remains, which leads me to wonder if you can roam around in that tunnel now) and make much of its remaining trip underground.
So I watched the rail line descend to ground level. Some of the trailers stored here were so close together that walking between them would be difficult, and I was further disoriented by the voices coming over a nearby public address system. I found a set of trailers I could squeeze between and climbed up onto the rail.
The brush and trees and undergrowth in this area were considerable, like walking through a forested area in a state park. As I climbed, however, the brush grew thinner and thinner. The rail here runs parallel to 34th Street, and as I climbed, a pair of women walking along the sidewalk on 34th glanced my way and then ignored me.
The rail began a gentle curve to the south (my left). A pair of guards or attendants at a parking lot below me pointed up at me and had a conversation I couldn’t hear. By this point, I was certain I’d be meeting police officers, but I kept walking. I knew I was taking a risk by walking the line on a weekday.
The line climbed up and over the MTA-LIRR lot. The loudspeaker I heard was in this lot, and I could hear a man directing employees to different areas of the lot. At least two dozen trains were parked below, and I thought briefly that this was the place I was most likely to piss someone off. Dropping onto an LIRR car would have been easy. I kept walking, hoping no one else would see me.
The growth here was remarkable. Small trees, wildflowers, and weeds stood tall, making some small patches impassible. I picked my way around those areas and kept walking.
The line curved back to the east, running parallel to 32nd Street. From here, you can get a magnificent view of both the Hudson River and the midtown skyline, especially the Empire State Building.
A leg of the rail juts out here and you can see where it used to run into an old warehouse in the area. The tunnel into the building, now, is bricked off and although it’s interesting to walk down and see that part of the line, it ends at that building. I took the branch that curved southward.
In front of me, a large metal wall, topped with razor wire, blocked my path. From the photos I’d seen on various websites (links at end of article), I knew to look for a gap in the wall where the sheet metal had been cut through. Bingo. I was able to squeeze through and out the other side.
I walked about 70 feet farther down the tracks and came to a second sheet-metal wall. This one had no gap cut through it, but there was a shallow indentation in the dirt underneath, with a small notch cut out of the metal, through which I could squeeze.
From here, the sailing was smooth for about half an hour. I followed the line over streets, between old warehouses and brand new condominium buildings. I saw a window just feet from the line, and roughly level with it. Someone had placed a wide plank across the gap between window and rail, I suppose for the purpose of walking across.
A few buildings I passed were close enough to have had sidings on the rail, the sidings now as abandoned as the rail itself. I could see where the entries into those buildings had been bricked off.
I reached a building where several men were working on the rail side, up on scaffolding, painting the building. I wanted to shuffle past without being noticed, but the ground here was especially covered with trash–bottles, cans, and all sorts of clanky crap–and the weeds were also quite high here, so I had to walk carefully and yet quickly, to pass by without notice.
I came eventually to the old Nabisco factory, now Chelsea Market. The line tunnels through the old factory at this point, and I could see where another section of the line branched off and went down a level to tunnel into a nearby building. The old tunnel entrance on that building was bricked off, but the Nabisco factory was still open.
The ground just before this tunnel, though, was littered with old building materials–bricks, scaffolding, iron beams. I assume it was junk thrown out when the factory was renovated into Chelsea Market. It seemed to be arranged in such a way as to keep people out of the tunnel, but I picked my way over it and walked through. I became nervous here again because of the windows in the tunnel. I could look into offices on the upper floors of the Market.
I wondered for a bit what this area might look like if the park is built. I could envision the planners carving an entryway into the Market, providing a place for walkers to get snacks and use restroom facilities.
Trash was strewn all throughout this tunnel, so I had to walk carefully. Just past the Market, to the south, was a building with offices and art studios. I watched as people inside gaped out at me, puzzled. Two children peered out and one of them cried out to a woman standing nearby, who came to the window and glared disapprovingly.
I came to another tunnel, and just beyond, I could make out a chain-link fence, topped with razor wire. This tunnel, too, was full of junk, and I didn’t enter, but in looking back over some of the pictures on other blogs, I wish I had, because some of the trash inside it seems like cool junk, and it looks like you can explore the building a bit more than you can at Nabisco.
I turned around, wondering how I was going to leave the High Line. Oblivio describes a staircase near 17th Street. You can apparently climb down to near street level here, but the last flight of stairs is cut off about 15 feet above the street (to prevent people climbing up, naturally). The staircase leads to the corner of a lot that someone on another website described as a police-impound lot. I looked down, already uncertain about that last 15 feet, and saw a group of three people standing near the stairs talking.
I knew I’d be spotted, and I was nervous about making that drop. Oblivio describes crossing a barbed-wire fence, shimmying down a girder, and dropping onto the top of a car parked below, but I knew all that would get me not only spotted but possibly arrested. Also, really, it sounds like a game of Quake to me. Crawl through this tunnel and shoot the zombies with your super nailgun and then crawl over this wall and drop onto the car below.
If I could have fragged those three with a rocket launcher, I might have made a break for it down the stairs, but instead I walked back the way I came. The walk, one way, including hunting around in the truck lot, took less than an hour, so walking back the way I’d come in didn’t seem so bad.
As I got back near the parking lot and the truck yard, I passed the two guard-attendants again, and again they pointed at me and talked among themselves. I came out through the yard and passed the security guard and again he just let me pass on by without a word.
- Lightningfield.com: The High Line
- Architecture Week: Proposals for the High Line
- Q Queso: The High Line, August 2002
- Guardian Unlimited: High Hopes for the High Line
- WNET Thirteen’s New York Voices: Designing the High Line
- The Morning News: Photographing the High Line