Last year my nephew Donovan, a student studying landscape architecture at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, told me of his experience at the High Line. A university that emphasizes a “Learn by Doing” educational experience, my nephew’s description of the High Line was insightful and clearly passionate melded with academic integrity. He suggested that I adopt his schools motto and join him on a summer day trip. Together, with my wife and daughter, the four of us visited this horticultural wonder in lower Manhattan.
The High Line is located on Manhattan’s West Side and runs from Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District to 34th Street between 10th and 11th Avenues. Section 1 of the High Line, which opened to the public on June 9th, 2009, runs from Gansevoort Street to 20th Street. The High Line was originally constructed as part of the West Side Improvement project, in the 1930’s, to remove heavy freight trains from the streets of Manhattan and move this dangerous traffic to an elevated position, some 30 feet in the air. Today’s green project, using the same space, upon completion, will run a mile-and-a-half long through the West Side neighborhoods of the Meatpacking District, West Chelsea and Clinton/Hell’s Kitchen. Interesting to me is the Meatpacking District. Much of the 1st section of the High Line is located here and around 1900 this district was home to more than 250 slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants. Prior to the High Lines development, trains, barges and ships brought goods directly to this district for processing from the Hudson River. After the High Line’s development, freight trains full of meat and other provisions were able to carry such goods directly to the upper floors of these buildings.
April 2006 marked the groundbreaking of the High Line. James Corner Field Operations, a landscape architecture and urban design firm, Diller Scofidio & Renfro, an architecture firm, along with the consultation of planting designer Piet Oudolf, designed this monumental landscape. The plantings of the High Line are inspired by the self-seeded landscape that grew on the out-of-use elevated rail tracks during the 25 years after the trains stopped running. Incidentally, the last train to run on the High line was in 1980. Some 210 species of perennials, grasses, trees and shrubs were chosen for section 1 because of their unique textures, colors and “hardiness.” Cognizant of bloom times in the plant selections, you can be sure to see something in bloom almost any day of the year. Native plants are at the forefront of the design and many of the plants chosen originally grew on the High Line’s rail bed.
Growing within the meandering, concrete pathways is, by far, my favorite plant selection of the project. Huge waves of Mexican feather grass (Nassella tenuissima) were in their glory, the day of our visit. A graceful and delicate, very fine textured ornamental grass which grows in a dense fountain-like clump complete with wiry culms made the biggest impact for me. Notable trees include white fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus), smokebush (Cotinus coggygria ‘Grace’) and sassafras (Sassafras albidum), a nostalgic favorite as I had these in my backyard growing up as a child. Perennials that I enjoyed were goatsbeard (Aruncus ‘Horatio’), coneflower (Echinacea purpurea ‘Vintage Wine’), sneezeweed (Helenium x ‘Rubinzwerg’) and catmint (Nepeta sibirica) to name a few. The use of plant material along with fixed and movable seating helps contribute to the overall experience. Lounge chairs that slide back and forth on rails and a special vantage point complete with ascending seating and a glass wall felt like a mini amphitheatre. Peering down the avenue, holding our serene experiences inside the glass wall, away from the outer concrete jungle, is a quantum design component.
Plants are not the only reason for visiting the High Line. There is free Fitness and Movement Classes, Pilates Fusion Classes and Stargazing with the Amateur Astronomers Association weekly. Membership to the High Line also has its privileges. As a supporter or friend to the High Line you can shop along the historic cobblestone streets of the meatpacking district, enjoying restaurants, design and photography studios and fashion boutiques and be guaranteed a 10% discount to most.
The High Line is open from 7:00AM to 10:00PM daily with its last entrance to the park is 9:45PM. There are several access points, however, if you decide to visit and are carrying a stroller, like we did, consider 14th Street and 16th Street as these have elevator access. I can’t wait for section 2 (20th Street to 30th Street) to open, projected for sometime in 2011.