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Looking up

Former railway track transformed into New York green space

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What a difference a decade makes. We are on the cobblestones of West 14th Street where drug dealers and transvestite prostitutes once plied their trade. Today, this street in the former Meatpacking District houses fancy nightclubs, boutique hotels and designer stores boasting names such as Stella McCartney, Marc Jacobs and Diane von Furstenberg.

Ten metres above us lies one of the city's hottest new attractions, the High Line. What began as a community preservation project to save an abandoned elevated freight railway track now attracts some two million visitors annually, about half of them from the city.

"It just goes to show that if you design something sensible, people will come," says Sayers.

Recently, a new section of the High Line was opened, adding 10 blocks and doubling its length.

The city had ordered the High Line torn down more than a decade ago, when locals fought to transform it into a unique half-park, half-public space. Robert Hammond, one of the struggle's leaders, says wildflowers had taken over the railway beds when he helped established Friends of the High Line in 1999, some four decades after the last train had used the narrow tracks.

"Nature had reclaimed an industrial structure," says Hammond, now executive director of Friends of the High Line, which manages the city-owned park.

The High Line takes its plants, grasses and trees very seriously, indeed. Its restoration efforts now nurture 210 species, ranging from Acer triflorum (three-flowered maple) to Vernonia glauca (a purple-flowered perennial known as broadleaf ironweed) growing among the tracks and Art Deco railings. The growth has revitalized the neglected rail line and is a key element in making this spot an oasis amid one of the world's most frenetic urban spaces.

It took Hammond and his allies 10 years of political lobbying and fundraising before the High Line's first two kilometres opened in June 2009. Von Furstenberg is one of several celebrity boosters. She, alone, has contributed more than $5 million to the cause.

The two-kilometre section that just opened added a lawn and a metal walkway under a treed canopy. It has a special lookout toward the city, although walking the entire High Line is one continuous view. On one side are the cliffs of New Jersey, across the Hudson River; on the other side the skyscrapers of Manhattan. Even the Statue of Liberty to the south is visible from some vantage points.

Local and foreign visitors agree the High Line is a special urban landscape. New Yorkers come for the peace and quiet -- or for wedding pictures. Tourists come because it is yet another one of the city's unique attractions.

"I've never seen anything like this before," says Bernardo Ewerton of Rio de Janeiro who is walking the tracks because his guidebook told him it was a must-see during his week-long stay.

Cinematographer Tristan Sheridan lives in the city and visits regularly. He often works nearby and credits the High Line with reviving the area.

"It's great to get away from the noisy city below," Sheridan says.

The calm also draws Irina Marquez, a freelance correspondent for a Russian magazine who has been living in New York for a decade.

"Here you are above the city, but still in it," says Marquez, who comes to sit in the sun and read her e-book while reclining on one of the High Line's popular wooden chaises.

A few metres away, a bicycle bell can be heard. Bicycles, themselves, are banned from the High Line, but this sound emanates from a piece of public art that emits a different New York bell tone every minute of the hour. At 34 minutes past every hour, it's the ringing bicycle bell belonging to "Cara on the Upper East Side." At 59 minutes past, we hear the train-like clangs that signal the daily closing of the New York Stock Exchange.

High Line's public art is as distinctive and calming as walking among the tracks. Take The River That Flows Both Ways; it's comprised of 700 crafted glass panes on an abandoned loading dock wall, almost within touching distance of the High Line. Each pane is a photograph of a different brownish-blue hue of the Hudson River taken during a day-long boat trip. The artist laminated the photos onto each wall window. This stunning work creates a visual link with the nearby Hudson, another way in which the High Line connects the visitor with the world beyond and below.

Michael Benedict is a writer and editor in Toronto. He visited the High Line in April.

-- Postmedia News

WHERE: The High Line now extends from Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District, just above West 13th Street, to West 30th Street, above Tenth Avenue. Access points are at West 14th, 16th, 18th, 20th, 23rd, 26th, 28th and 30th Streets. Elevators are at West 14th, 16th, 23rd and 30th streets.

WHEN: In the summer, the High Line is open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week. Evenings are a good time to visit and enjoy the sunsets over the Hudson River.

Getting there: Numerous subway lines go under Seventh or Eighth Avenues; from those, the High Line is about a 10-minute walk. Or take a bus down Ninth or 10th Avenues.

WHERE TO STAY: There are a number of hotels near the High Line and one that straddles it: The award-winning, 18-storey Standard Hotel features rooms above the walkway and a well-reviewed restaurant with an American bistro menu below.

To mark the opening of the second stretch, the Gansevoort Meatpacking NYC is offering a "Hit the Highline: Take Two" package starting at $425 that includes a field guide to the High Line, blanket, Thermos and boxed lunch with cupcakes.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 27, 2011 D3

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