With the opening of the next section of the High Line this week we are reminded of the incredible transformation of the High Line from an abandoned relic of 20th Century transportation history to a restorative piece of the urban landscape. There are many sidebars to the story, but perhaps one of the more ironic is that the High Line itself began as part of a project jeopardizing the Upper West Side’s very own Riverside Park.
Before the construction of the High Line “cowboys” cleared the way for trains on Tenth Avenue. (George P. Hall & Son Photograph Collection, PR024)
Conceived as a way to remove trains from the congested Tenth Avenue, the High Line was part of the more extensive “West Side Improvement”, a plan that unfolded over the course of the first four decades of the twentieth century. Not only was the project intended to remove the dangers of running trains at street grade in the middle of Manhattan, but it was also meant to improve the commercial transportation infrastructure along virtually the entire western shore of the island.
After much preparation, the first in a series of engineering plans was agreed upon by the city and New York Central Railroad in April 1916; however, the designs for the pre-existing rail lines squeezed between Riverside Park and the Hudson River stoked fears about the future of the park. Although primarily motivated by a sense of the park’s aesthetic, opposition was also in tune with the more worldly concern for nearby real estate values.
Broadside announcing a meeting organized by the Women’s League for the Protection of Riverside Park, May 19, . (Women’s League for the Protection of Riverside Park Records, MS 139)
From the ranks of those opponents came the Women’s League for the Protection of Riverside Park, founded in 1916. The League, composed largely of members of the middle and upper classes, thrived in a time of political action among women while emerging as one of the leading defenders of the park. After a saga of scrapped designs and compromises (see Chapter 5 of Ann L. Buttenwieser’s Manhattan Water-bound for a detailed account), in which the League played a prominent role, Robert Moses finally pushed through a plan in the 1930s that brought an expansion of the park, the covering of the New York Central lines and construction of the Henry Hudson Parkway.
A proposed design for the railroad cover by McKim, Mead & White, 1929. Model of Elimination of Grade Crossing, West 79th Street (Women’s League for the Protection of Riverside Park Records, MS 139)
And so the story has come full circle: From an integral piece of of a project that threatened one of New York’s most beloved parks, the High Line has itself been saved by becoming… a park.