Alum, professor helping turn former railway into urban promenade

 

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The High Line stretches for more than a mile above Manhattan’s West Side, a hulking structure that soars over the city streets and casts huge shadows below.

And yet somehow, the High Line—which once carried freight trains to city warehouses on its elevated tracks—was all but ignored by an entire generation of New Yorkers.

That includes Joshua David C’84, who admits to living beneath the track for some time before finally looking up and wondering, “What exactly is that thing?”

“Suddenly, it caught my interest in a way that it never had before,” said David. “I started asking questions about it, and the more I found out, the more intrigued I was.”

What David found out disturbed him—the historic structure seemed slated for destruction.

So in 1999, he and a friend founded Friends of the High Line, a not-for-profit group dedicated to saving the High Line from demolition and converting it into public space. After years of efforts, David and his supporters seem on the brink of winning that fight.

If all goes as planned, the High Line could very soon be turned into a public promenade—a ribbon of green space that will wind through the West Side, giving residents one of the most interesting city parks in the world.

“I think of this is as a walkway, a promenade, a greenway,”said David.

This past fall, the project got a major boost when New York City announced it would commit more than $43 million in capital funding for design and construction. Meanwhile, the State of New York helped the cause by joining the city in a legal effort to get permission to use the High Line as public space.

David says the Friends need one more approval before the project can move forward. Once that is won, he said, groundbreaking could take place in late 2005.

Leading the design team for the High Line is James Corner, chair of Penn’s Landscape Architecture Department and a principal for the New York architecture firm Field Operations. Corner and his firm were chosen over more than 50 other firms who submitted bids for the project.

Under Corner’s direction, David says, the High Line could be transformed into a uniquely urban green space—a promenade that would offer a taste of both nature and rugged industrialism. The High Line has already been overgrown with wildflowers, grasses and other plants, and David says he doesn’t expect that element of wildness to disappear entirely.

“People really want to maintain some sort of … unusual element, to accentuate the idea that this is something elevated here in the city, and spontaneously created,” he says. “It’s much more wild [than a park], more unruly. It’s tougher. It feels less like a park and more like a scruffy wilderness.”

For more information on the project, go to www.thehighline.org.

Originally published on January 13, 2005