While I was in New York I went to the High Line, a section of elevated railway that’s now been converted or I dare say “repurposed,” into a pedestrian precinct so that New Yorkers can stroll high above ground level and look down on the poor suckers beneath them. New Yorkers seem justifiably proud of it, and a lot of people do in fact walk there, but it’s a very specific kind of walking, actually I think a form of promenading. People walking up and down, savoring the pleasure of walking, looking around them, checking each other out. Very old school.
Of course, very few of the people walking the High Line are actually going anywhere, using it as a way of getting from A to B. That’s not surprising. Citizens who actually need to get from the far western end of, say, 30th Street down to Gansevoort Street and the meat packing district are few and far between. So the place functions a kind of pedestrian theme park, a piece of reclaimed industrial territory, now decked out with walkways and exuberant landscaping, while keeping some of the old rails still visible.
One great thing, obviously, is that you’re above the traffic, and therefore not confronted by manic drivers or deranged cyclists. There’s even a section where people sit in a kind of amphitheater and gaze down at the traffic below; a surprisingly pleasurable activity.
But even so, walking on the High Line isn’t entirely different from walking the sidewalks of New York. The paths are extremely narrow in places and you can find yourself stuck behind a group of inconsiderate, slow-moving walkers just as you can on the street.
There are also some wooden loungers where people who are less committed to walking can sprawl back and display themselves to passing pedestrians. Did somebody suggest there might be one or two exhibitionists in New York? Well why not? People watching is always fun, and watching people who have actually set themselves up to be watched is a particular form of that fun.
The High Line itself is suitably sylvan and park-like, but inevitably you look past the greenery and the pedestrian oasis, away towards the cityscape of the surrounding area. There are apartment blocks, new slithers of zesty modern architecture, old industrial buildings and the Hudson River is visible from certain places.
There are inhabitants who were formerly living thoroughly quiet private lives who now find gaggles of people walking past their window and staring in. No doubt some are royally pissed off about it. On the other hand, some of the newer developments seem to be designed specifically with passing pedestrians in mind. In certain places you can look right into some very expensive apartments and see just how much space the inhabitants have got, indeed how much space they’ve wasted – the true sign of Manhattan opulence.
On the two days I went to the High Line, a building was being demolished very close to the southern end of the walkway. A guy in a demolition machine, one with caterpillar tracks and a single arm with what looked like a giant hole punch on the end, though I believe it’s actually known as a hydraulic hammer, was doing the job all by himself.
Smashing walls and roof was easy enough but then he encountered metal girders which were much harder to break down, though he always got there in the end. The whole process delivered quite an ear-bashing to the walkers on the High Line, and clouds of demolition dust rose up and billowed in our direction. The noise and the dirt were the kind of thing that you might think would threatened to spoil a walk. But it didn’t. The walkers I saw absolutely LOVED it. We all paused in our walking, moved to the side of the High Line, pressed against the railing and stared down in absolute fascination, to see how one man could destroy a whole building.
It didn’t spoil the walk, it absolutely MADE the walk. If I were designing a pedestrian theme park I’d make sure there was some industrial-scale destruction going on there; so much more fun than looking at the birds and the plants and the show offs on the wooden sun loungers.