Call it 'urban recycling': New York City's High Line makes a park out of a useless eyesore

Manhattan has taken an eyesore and turned it into a jewel. The High Line viaduct was built in the 1930s to lift freight trains off New York City's streets, where they were running people down. Thirty feet in the air, it winds its way down the Lower West Side, near the old wharves it once served. But for nearly 30 years, it hasn't been used. It carried its last cargo, a load of frozen turkeys, back in 1980. Since then, it offered nothing to the city except for rust, shadows, and pigeon poop. (For more pictures, click here!)

Last week, it all seemed like it had never happened. Mayor Bloomberg cut a new ribbon on the High Line, reborn as the country's most progressive park.

The park's founding patrons, an artist and a writer, met at a community meeting in 1999 and decided they wanted to do something about that hulking elevated train bed that divided their neighborhood. Inspired by the Promenade Plantée in Paris, they realized that changing things was possible. They convinced the railways to donate the trestles, and through handshakes and politicking, they learned to navigate the byzantine pathways of government red tape, grants, and donation-seeking.

No doubt about it. You could have refit the High Line for a lot less than what it took: $86 million so far, with two more sections yet to be finished. The new park's amenities are lofty indeed: art installations, thoughtful plantings, arty water fountains, and bench seating that seems to rise out of the walkway itself. Much of it is custom-built to please the neighbors who will use it. Indeed, the High Line is more of a promenade than a park where you'd spread out a picnic blanket and a boom box.

The final price tag is expected to hit $152 million -- four years ago, the highest estimate was $100 million. But partly because of those luxury features, and to guarantee that it would actually come to fruit, the High Line's organizers targeted powerful patrons with deep pockets, so the project is being co-funded by private citizens. As I was inspecting the park minutes after the opening ceremonies, I overheard one volunteer whisper to another, "She donated $15 million. She can at lest have a free tee-shirt."

The New York papers are quick to call the park "trendy" because of where it is and who put money into it. I don't think parks can be trendy as long as they're open to everyone and used for years. In many cities, park access is granted only by key. Those are trendy.

There are some downsides to the High Line's revitalization. In the run-up to its opening, the surrounding blocks have turn into construction zones. To get the park built, the city bartered with people who owned the land beneath it. Since the park's opening means they can now never hope to build something in its space, landowners were given the right to sell their air rights to developers building nearby.

Within three years, the area sprouted tall buildings, changing the gritty post-industrial fabric forever. Luxury hotels were staked out, condos went up, and even architect Frank Gehry contributed a new office building -- it's near to a correctional facility, which only highlights the dramatic transition the long-ignored industrial district is seeing because of the park.

The lively style of the project might be a vestige of the last boom, but the inspiration is of the future.

America is gradually learning to make use of the things it once thought embarrassing, unsightly, and irredeemable. The last decade's Rails-to-Trails movement saw many old railway beds converted to biking and hiking playgrounds, and in upstate New York, the ancient Erie Canal is only just now being seen as an asset instead of as the unsavory industrial gash that it's been since the 1830s.

Until this generation, the American tradition has been to destroy anything that appeared blighted. In fact, all a developer has to do to get his way is to coerce a lawmaker into declaring a neighborhood blighted. All around the cameras filming the classic movie West Side Story in the summer of 1960, the gritty West Side itself was being bulldozed to make way for Lincoln Center. It was a dizzying irony: patrons of high art sought to destroy the very thing they were illuminating through their work.

But the High Line, in addition to being a work of art in civic form, is also a model of urban recycling. Its community reclaimed and retained its history rather than sweeping it away. There are other triumphs: The giant MASS MoCA museum in western Massachusetts is housed in a former mill. The Tate Modern, in a monolithic former power station, is now one of the most beloved tourist sights of London. When industry and crowds recede, they leave opportunities for community improvement, if only a city can learn to see old scars in new ways.

Nearly every American town has something similar that could stand to be reawakened rather than silently threatening tetanus -- ruins so forlorn they became something worse than forgotten. Buffalo has the magnificent Central Terminal. Minneapolis has its old grain silos, and Mineral Wells, Texas, has the Baker Hotel. And then there's Detroit.

What places in your city are ripe to be made yours again? And who among us has the backbone to get it done?
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