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The Inside Track On New York City's High Line

In August 1999, Joshua David walked into a community board meeting in New York City's Chelsea neighborhood.

People were debating what to do with an old, elevated rail track that ran through the neighborhood between Gansevoort and 34 Street. It had been abandoned since 1980. Before that, it was built to haul goods into the city's meatpacking district.

David thought it was kind of a cool old relic, and he thought other people would feel the same.

"I went into that meeting thinking, 'Oh, we'll find some historic preservation group that's all into this,'" David tells weekends on All Things Considered guest host Laura Sullivan. "We'll just give them 20 bucks, lick a few envelopes and feel good about it."

But there were no groups. No one wanted to save the old track — except for one other guy at the meeting, Robert Hammond.

Neither David nor Hammond had ever been to a community board meeting before, but they exchanged business cards and decided to start a nonprofit, Friends of the High Line. With a few more meetings and some fliers, they thought, maybe they could convince the city not to demolish the old track.

"My mom asked me, 'What's the chances of it happening?'" Hammond says. "I said, 'You know, 1 in 100.'"

It took 10 years of fundraising, permit applications, feasibility studies, and wooing city and state officials, but Hammond and David beat those odds. They tell the story of how they did it in a book out next month, High Line: The Inside Story of New York City's Park in the Sky.

Early Opposition

Today, the High Line is one of Manhattan's most popular public spaces: a mile-long, modern, high-concept park built on the old railroad track. In the 10 months after it opened in 2009, it drew 2 million visitors and — in a rare ratio for a public space in New York — about half were tourists. Half were native New Yorkers.

There are hints in the modern park of the High Line's history: You can see the original rail tracks sticking out from areas of shrubs and trees. These rails date back to the 1930s, when they carried trains loaded with goods into the meatpacking district on tracks that ran along 10th Avenue.

The last train ran in 1980. "It was a trainload of frozen turkeys coming into the meat market," Hammond says, "to give New Yorkers turkeys for Thanksgiving."

Over the next 20 years, many people in the neighborhood came to view the High Line as an eyesore and wanted it torn down. Many thought it was holding up development of the neighborhood.

"Mayor [Rudy] Giuliani really wanted to demolish the High Line," Hammond says. "One of his last acts in office — two days before he left — was signing the demolition order."

By that time, Hammond and David had the support of Chelsea's gay and art communities. The two eventually gained support from celebrities like fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg and actor Edward Norton, both of whom contributed to a growing list of benefactors funding legal efforts to save the High Line.

Early on, no one had any big plans for a park. They just wanted to keep the track around.


For Hammond and David, the "holy grail" of saving the High Line was something called a Certificate of Interim Trail Use, or CITU.

Issued by the Surface Transportation Board, a CITU allows the government to "bank" out-of-use rail corridors as trails on the grounds that the country might need them again. The term of art is "rail-banking." Without a certificate to rail-bank it, the land beneath the High Line would have been lost to local owners and developers.

"We originally thought we could just apply and get one, they way you'd send away for a prize by mailing in a couple of cereal box tops," David writes in High Line.

After five years of fundraising, permit applications and even a lawsuit against the city, they had their CITU authorizing development of two-thirds of the full High Line.

"Nothing more stood in our way," David writes. "We could break ground."

A few years later, Hammond and David were on a roll. They'd settled on a design team to work around a "wildscape" of weeds and wildflowers. They'd secured both city and federal funding, including $18 million that came with the help of then-Sen. Hillary Clinton.

They'd wooed the Bloomberg administration with an economic feasibility study that showed the High Line would easily double its original $150 million cost in tax revenue from increased property values in the area. (That revenue figure has since been raised to nearly half a billion dollars.)

Still Wild

If you start at its southern terminus and walk the entire length of the High Line, you eventually arrive at a locked fence at 30th Street. Hammond and David have the combination.

One the other side is the final, undeveloped third stretch of the High Line. It goes all the way around Manhattan's west side rail yards.

Hammond and David are trying to secure development rights for this part of the High Line. For now, it's just the way they found it years ago: nothing but rusty railroad tracks and waist-high weeds.

"To me," Hammond says on a tour of the site, "this was the magic we wanted to save. Like right now, we're alone. It's just us, up here [in] this private garden right in the middle of New York."

Hammond says he was always secretly fearful he wouldn't like the new park as much as the old, secret High Line.

"What's made me so happy is that I like the new park better," he says. "The design influences the way people interact.

"I always notice when you're up on the High Line you see people holding hands. And you don't see that, just in people walking down the street. New Yorkers don't do it. But on the High Line they hold hands, and so I think that's the testimony of it really working."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR Staff