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Jun 262009
 

By John DeFore
Green Right Now

This June may have given New Yorkers an unseasonably rainy stretch crummy enough to keep them inside whenever possible, but it has also delivered a novel way to exploit the rare sunny day: A new park built upon industrial ruins, sustained by both citizens and government, and (to judge from its opening week) enjoyed by all.

Known as The High Line, the park sits upon a long stretch of elevated train track running down the west side of the city’s lower end. The nearly 80 year-old tracks once carried freight through industrial areas, running straight through some warehouses to allow for easy loading and unloading of goods.

The rails were last used for freight in 1980 and soon targeted for demolition, but a variety of residents in affected neighborhoods lobbied against that. In 1999, two enthusiasts founded Friends of the High Line to push for the structure’s re-use as a park. Remarkably, they succeeded. The first phase of the project, about nine blocks long, opened June 8; a second section should be complete in a little over a year; a third and final segment still awaits approval.

Opening weekend was, predictably, mobbed by visitors, a fact quickly documented by those inclined to criticize the project (however flimsy their complaints). But just a few days after opening, when I visited, access was easy. Though the park above was certainly well attended — with visitors ranging from couples and families with small children to the elderly and clusters of college-age friends — there were no lines to get in and no need to jostle for pleasant places to sit or stroll. (Organizers say they have had a line on three weekend days so far, with waits to ascend never longer than 30 minutes.)

Up top, the park is both stylishly designed and ecologically thoughtful. Many of the original construction materials were reused in the final design, after being treated to remove contaminants like lead paint and creosote, and the plants contained in the new gravel beds were chosen with the ultimate natural model in mind. As Katie Lorah, spokesperson for the Friends organization, explained, “the planting concept is modeled on the landscape that occurred naturally when the trains stopped running. Different conditions on the Line — widening and narrowing, varying soil depths, sun and shade, different wind patterns and degrees of shelter from nearby buildings — contributed to an extremely varied range of growing conditions on the Line, what the design team calls ‘micro-climates.’ Many of these conditions remain now that the High Line is a park, so many of the same species are used.”

A high percentage of the grasses, trees, and blooming plants here are native species, which are attended to by some very happy-looking gardeners. Gardeners and other maintenance personnel (who currently are spending as much time answering curious visitors’ questions as pruning limbs) are employed by the non-profit Friends organization, which has an arrangement with the city’s parks department wherein it provides over 70 percent of the annual operating budget. (It also raised a large fraction of construction costs.

Those planted areas, which are feathered into and around concrete paths throughout the park, perform a valuable role when it comes to rain. The High Line “functions essentially like the City’s largest green roof,” Lorah says.