Mile and a Half
I graduated from college in 1993, and the next year I moved to the West Village, an apartment at Tenth Street and Washington. I was attracted to the West Village because it was a jumble of different parts of New York. It still had an industrial character. It had old and new residential buildings. It had the Hudson River, which had not yet been transformed into a park. The piers were still rotting.
I used to go out a lot in the neighborhood, and there was a bar a few blocks from where I lived called Automatic Slim's. On the wall outside the bar, they had posted an old black-and-white photo of a train running through a factory building. If you looked across the street, you could see the building that was in the photo, where the train used to run through at the third-floor level.
You could still see the tracks, cut off on both sides. When I was walking in the neighborhood, I'd stop and look at the picture and then look up at the building. I liked the idea that a train used to run through my neighborhood.
When my boyfriend, Stephen, and I moved to Chelsea in 1986, nobody paid much notice to anything west of Tenth Avenue, except some gay bars.
The first night we spent in the apartment we live in now was in 1993. Our front room is a little bit below the sidewalk level, so when you look out, you see people walking on Twenty-first Street from the waist down.
It was summer, and I was on my hands and knees painting the floor. I looked out and saw this parade of male legs in very short shorts going past the window. A club called Zone DK was over in that direction, just before the West Side Highway. It was a dark, gay place where people would go into the shadows and things would happen. The Spike and the Eagle were over there, too. We liked the Spike. We never went to the Eagle very much.
The High Line was about a block from our door. It came out from behind the Church of the Guardian Angel, bridged across Twenty-first Street, and then disappeared behind some tenement buildings. I never paid it much attention.
I also spent some time in the Meatpacking District—I'd gone to the restaurant Florent—and I had seen parts of the High Line in that neighborhood. And I had gone to a few galleries in Chelsea and seen it cross over the streets there. But I'd never realized all the bits and pieces were connected.
I had my grandmother's old Buick parked near the rail yards. The High Line was over there, too; there used to be a lot of hookers underneath it. I never made the connection—that that dark metal bridge with all the hookers at Twenty-eighth Street was the same thing that crossed Twenty-first Street—because most of the High Line was hidden behind buildings.
I had been a history major in college, and my first job after that was at Ernst & Young, doing consulting. I got bored pretty quickly and left. Over the next few years, I worked for a variety of start-ups. I helped start an in-flight catalog, a competitor to SkyMall. We were selling nose hair trimmers out of airplanes. I helped launch an HIV/AIDS website called thebody.com.
I was also a part-time, self-taught painter. I had had a few small shows. So I had an artistic side, but my background was in business.
If you look at old maps of Manhattan, you'll see a jagged dotted line that traces the natural shoreline. East of Tenth Avenue is residential, the nice town house blocks of Chelsea. West of Tenth, everything is built on landfill, and the neighborhood and industry developed around the railroad.
It started changing in the mid-1980s. The Kitchen, a center for video, music, dance, and other arts, came in on West Nineteenth Street around 1985. The Dia Center for the Arts came in on West Twenty-second Street around 1987. Then the galleries started coming in the early to mid-1990s: Paula Cooper, Matthew Marks, and Barbara Gladstone. By 1999 the galleries had grown to a significant number, and the Comme des Garçons store opened on West Twenty-second Street. That was a trigger for fashion magazines, style magazines, and design magazines to turn their attention to the neighborhood, and I got assigned an article about changes happening in West Chelsea.
The world of these magazines was one I knew well. I'd been a freelance writer for fifteen years, and I'd occasionally take an editing gig at Vanity Fair, Gourmet, Redbook, or Brides, and I did some cater-waitering on the side. I'd done a lot of travel writing, but I was trying to break out of the travel ghetto, making a conscious effort to take only stories that were of interest to me, about architecture if possible. When I was in college, at Penn, I wanted to be an architect, and I took the first required course for the degree, Design for Environment. The professor brought us outside on the lawn to draw buildings and trees. He said I would never be an architect because the leaves on my trees were so badly drawn.
The summer of 1999, I read a piece in The New York Times that said that Mayor Giuliani's administration was trying to tear down the High Line. The Times ran a little map of it, and you could see that the High Line was continuous, a mile and a half of rail tracks running right through Manhattan. That's what really got me interested in it, the idea that this industrial relic had lasted so long and was about to be torn down.
Around this time, I was hired by a retailer called Watch World to start their Internet division. It was the first time in my life that I had my own office with a door to close, and so it was the first time I could do things besides work at work. So I decided to get involved with the High Line somehow.
My first thought was that I could help someone else who was already working on it. This is New York, and in New York everything that could ever be threatened has a group associated with it, right? So I started making some calls to people involved in civic projects, asking them if they knew who the group was.
I called Gifford Miller, a good friend of mine from college who had been elected to the City Council on the Upper East Side. He basically told me that trying to save an old rail line was a stupid idea. But I kept calling around. I called the local community board and talked to Ed Kirkland, who was the head of the Preservation and Planning Committee. He wasn't that excited about the idea of saving the High Line, and he said he didn't know anyone else who was. But he called back later in the summer and told me there was a community board hearing on the High Line scheduled for a night in August.
I walked up and down all the blocks in West Chelsea researching my article. The place where Printed Matter is now, on Twenty-second and Tenth, used to be an intercom store; they sold front-door intercom systems for apartment buildings. And there was a Formica maker, and glass cutters, and a whole bunch of industrial suppliers that are now almost entirely gone.
That is when I began paying attention to the High Line, really looking up at it for the first time, because it was everywhere, running over every block. It was about thirty feet tall, and you couldn't see what was on top of it, but the rusting Art Deco railings gave it a sense of lost beauty, and the spaces underneath were very dramatic; they had a dark, gritty, industrial quality, and a lofty, church-like quality as well. In the heat of summer, it was shadowy and cool underneath. I didn't know what the thing was called then. My friend John told me it was a sex spot—coming out of the Spike or the Eagle, he'd ducked underneath it with a trick more than once. There was sex to be had up on top, too, and there were parties up there, raves, along with some homeless encampments.
As I asked more people about it, I ended up calling a guy I'd seen at block association meetings, Ed Kirkland, who'd lived in the neighborhood for many years and knew everything there was to know about Chelsea.
Ed told me that it ran from Gansevoort Street to Thirty-fourth Street without a break in it. They had torn down pieces of it south of Gansevoort Street; a piece from Clarkson to Bethune Street had been demolished in the 1960s, and the piece between Bethune and Gansevoort Street had been taken down in 1991, but what was left north of Gansevoort Street was intact and still technically a working railroad, even though no trains ran on it. Anbody who looked at it would say it was abandoned; but it had not been "abandoned," which is a formal railroad term; it was still a functioning rail easement that could connect into the old New York Central tracks up to Albany.
That was the trigger for me—that it was so big, and that it was unbroken for twenty-two blocks. I had assumed that somebody at some point would have torn down a part of it to build something else, that it was a collection of relics, but it was a single relic, all in one piece.
I felt what I think is the spark of most people's interest in the High Line: Wouldn't it be cool to walk up there, twenty-two city blocks, on this old, elevated thing, on this relic of another time, in this hidden place, up in the air?
Right around then the Times ran its article saying that the High Line had been acquired by CSX, the railroad company, that the City wanted to tear it down, and that CSX was open to rail-trail proposals. I called people who were quoted in the article and asked them: Were there any organizations working on this? There were none—no historical groups, no parks groups, nobody.
One of the people quoted in the article was a CSX representative, Debra Frank. Debra told me that CSX had commissioned a study about the High Line and that they were going to present it at a community board meeting.
I was off from work that week, out on Fire Island, and I actually came back from the beach to go to that meeting. I had never been to a community board meeting before. I had never had any desire to go to a community board meeting before.
The meeting was held in a room at Penn South in mid-August—one of those lazy. hot, late summer evenings in New York where anybody who has the ability not to be in the city is not in the city.
The Penn South complex was built in the 1950s as housing for members of the Garment Workers' Union. There are now a lot of senior citizens in these buildings. It is a world unto itself: no stores, not much signage, nothing on street level to invite people in. The community room, roughly at Twenty-seventh Street and Eighth Avenue, was a hard room to find.
I sat next to Robert because I thought he was cute. Community board meetings are not necessarily filled with cute guys, so I said to myself, Well, there's one, why don't I sit next to him?
There were maybe twenty people at the meeting. It began with a presentation by someone from the Regional Plan Association, who had been commissioned by CSX to do a study of the possible uses for the High Line. They presented some different options, from demolition to using it for freight to making a park up on top of it. And they mentioned the federal Rails-to-Trails program.
After the RPA presented, a bunch of people got up and spoke about why it was a bad idea to reuse the High Line. A guy named Doug Sarini spoke, representing a group of property owners in CHelsea who had been working for fifteen years to tear it down. He said it was a blight on the neighborhood. It was going to fall down any day. It was holding up the economic development of the area. It was dangerous. It was dark underneath. A whole litany of arguments, and really vehement. I was surprised at how strongly these people felt. I had been thinking about speaking at the meeting, but not after all that.
I stayed behind afterward, trying to find anyone else who was interested in saving the High Line. There was no one except the guy who had been sitting next to me. He told me his name was Josh, that he lived in the neighborhood, that he was a travel writer.
I said something like "Well, you know, I'm very busy, but if you start something, I could help." And he said, "Well. I'm also very busy. Maybe you should start something." We exchanged business cards and agreed to talk later.
People exchange cards all the time and nothing happens. If I think of all the times I exchanged business cards with somebody in New York City and something happened afterward, it's a very small number.
So that was the genesis of Friends of the High Line, that first community board meeting where no one else was interested in trying to save it. I think we had both looked around, realized no one else was trying to do anything, and that if something was going to be done, we would need to start it ourselves.
Robert had a temporary-feeling office near Herald Square, and that's where we met a few weeks later. I don't think either of us knew exactly what we were trying to accomplish, beyond trying to see if there was something better to do with the High Line than just tear it down. We already had enough of a sense from that one meeting that this was going to be a huge endeavor, and each of us tried to get the other to do it. Neither of us wanted to be the one who owned it.
I didn't understand the complexity of what we were getting into—that we would soon be swimming in an alphabet soup of CITUs, STBs, ULURPs, and RFPs; that we would need to become versed in urban planning, architecture, and City politics, raise millions of dollars, and give years of our lives to the High Line. I had no idea that this would become a vocation, and I didn't want it to. I had no background for it. I was enjoying building my career.
The RPA study had said that making the High Line a park was probably the most appealing, least complicated way of reusing it. That idea appealed to us, in part, I think because we just wanted to figure out a way for people to go up there. We figured that the first step in starting an organization for this would be naming it. High Line Park Association was one name we came up with.
My mother asked me, "What are the chances?" I said, 'One in a hundred." She asked, "Well, should you be spending your time on it, then?"