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High Line, New York City

The Hudson River Railroad, later the New York Central Railroad, originally began in 1847, connecting docks on the Hudson with industries and food distributors along 10th Avenue south to the Meatpacking District. The street-level railroad had more than 100 road crossings, leading to the need to have men on horses, called West Side Cowboys, ride in front of trains to clear pedestrians and traffic. In 1929, the decision was made to elevate the railway to eliminate the road crossings, resulting in the construction of a bridge, 30 feet high and more than a mile long, which was opened in 1934.

The lifespan of the High Line was short. By the 1960s, industry in Manhattan was declining, and goods were shipped into the city by trucks using the new interstate highway system. The last train ran in 1980, and the bridge was abandoned and allowed to overgrow. In 1999, the Friends of the High Line was formed to advocate for the conversion of the bridge to recreational use. In 2005, CSX donated the southern portion of the High Line to the city, followed by the donation of the northern portion in 2012. The southern portion of the new park was opened in 2009, and the remainder was opened in 2011 and 2014.

The conversion of the High Line involved much more than laying a walking surface and building a couple of staircases for pedestrian access. A walkway was constructed along the entire length that allows pedestrians to walk from one end to the other. However, the rails and ties were never removed, and the walkway does not, for most of its length, cover the entire width of the deck. Instead, the walkway wanders in and among the rails and ties. In some places, the walkway is made of asphalt laid level with the remaining rails. In other places, the walkway is made of metal grate and elevated above the original railbed. In others, it is made of cement blocks covering only a portion of the width of the bridge, while the remaining width is left in its “natural” state with rails, ties, and gravel ballast overgrown with self-seeded plantings. It is an interesting design choice, but “self-seeded” is a major theme for the areas of the park adjacent to the walkways. Instead of choosing to plant these areas with grass, flowers, trees, or other common landscaping items, most of them have been left exactly as they were when the railroad ceased operating.

There is a detailed of the High Line in my book, Bridgespotting: A Guide to Bridges that Connect People, Places, and Times.

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