Recent news that James Corner, the landscape architect behind New York City’s High Line, had been tapped to design a multi-use park slated for 21 highly coveted acres along northeast False Creek sent tongues wagging in Vancouver circles.
The High Line was also top of mind last March when Mayor Gregor Robertson announced the city was purchasing Arbutus Corridor. He called the purchase and plan to turn the nine-kilometre stretch of land into public space a “once in a lifetime opportunity.”
“This is really Vancouver’s chance to have a New York-style High Line, a repurposing of what was freight railroad. This is kilometres of public space that’s accessible through our city for all residents to use and connecting many of our neighbourhoods,” he said at a press conference.
So what exactly will Vancouver’s new parks look like, and what the heck is so great about the High Line that could warrant the hiring of — gasp! — a red-blooded American to put his grubby paws on what will potentially be one of the most exciting and most-used park spaces in the city since Stanley Park and the wobbly bicyclist-clogged Seawall?
I decided to check it out for myself.
The origins of the High Line date back to the early 1900s when it served as an aboveground railway for trains running from 34th Street to St John's Park Terminal, at Spring Street, carrying goods to and from Manhattan’s factories and warehouses. In 1980, with the growing dominance of the trucking industry, the High Line’s last train completed its final run, reportedly carrying three carloads of frozen turkeys. For all you pop culture nerds, the abandoned High Line was also once featured in the video for Pat Benatar’s “Love is a Battlefield” (it is, by the way), and the Woody Allen film Manhattan.
The derelict trestle was almost demolished but wasn’t thanks to the efforts of local residents and activists. In 1999, Friends of the High Line formed to advocate for the line’s preservation and reuse as a public space. For further illustration of the divisiveness permeating American politics, around that time former New York mayor and Trump devotee Rudolph Giuliani publicly favoured tearing down the High Line while then-U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton wrote a letter in support for repurposing the tracks.
After years of lobbying, planning, public consultations and construction, the first section of the park opened to the public in 2009 and has continued to grow.
Take a walk on the wild side
Feel-good, community cuddliness aside, the High Line is a wonderful way to see the ever-evolving city that surrounds it. Starting at the outer edges of Hell’s Kitchen, the 2.3 kilometre-long public park cuts a swath through the neighbourhood of Chelsea down to the meatpacking district and the West Village with views of the Hudson River to the west and the bustling, noisy, urine-scented metropolis to the east.
The elevated walkway is closed off to bikes, so it’s not really an efficient transportation route but a chance to interact with the city by foot. That said, there are numerous bike racks and Citi Bike rental stations along the way at street level.
Full of greenery, art installations, benches and postcard-worthy viewpoints, the High Line has quickly become a refuge for tourists and locals alike. One such art installation I came across, and which proved particularly entertaining to passersby, was a piece by Tony Matelli called Sleepwalker. It consists of a life-sized, very realistic looking statue of a creepy somnambulist in nothing but a pair of tighty-whities. This was before Trump’s election, so maybe it was a premonition.
A green thumb’s paradise, the High Line also boasts nearly 124,000 square feet of planting beds (more than two NFL football fields). And those beds grow more than 100,000 plants. According to the Friends of the High Line website, the park’s plant selection favours native, drought-tolerant, and low-maintenance species, which cuts down on the resources that go into the landscape.
For oglers like myself, the High Line also provides an eye-level view of how some New Yorkers live, with the park winding past big windowed living rooms and kitchens of condos and stylish apartments a bagel’s throw away, and new developments under construction seemingly at every turn.
Because I also live a Pavlovian treat-based existence, I appreciated the numerous opportunities to interrupt my leisurely walk with a well-deserved refreshment or goodie. At various intervals, there are stairs or elevators to the streets below, providing access to Chelsea’s Gallery District, a host of cafes, restaurants and shops and the jam-packed Chelsea Market, which serves as part artisanal food court, part hipster shopping mall.
For those who prefer to remain park bound, halfway down the line there’s a sprawling covered space with tables and assorted kiosks serving coffee, snacks, full-blown meals and surprisingly tasteful souvenirs.
At one point during my travels I posted a photo to my Instagram account showing crowds of people walking the High Line past a manicured lawn, a jungle of trees and shrubbery and Barbara Kruger’s giant “Blind Idealism Is... Deadly” mural.
“Are you visiting the future?” one of my friends replied to the post jokingly.
Hopefully, in some ways I was.
For more information on the High Line, go to thehighline.org.
Accommodations for this story were provided by INNSIDE New York NoMad in Chelsea.