The Life, Death, and Rebirth of New York City's High Line, in Photos

Black and white photo of a city landscape with skyscrapers
credit: Author Unknown, 1934

New York's High Line—a former elevated railroad track, now an elevated park on the West Side of Manhattan—has a checkered history that began over 80 years ago. Now, the life of the High Line has been captured for the first time ever in a book. High Line: The Inside Story on New York City’s Park in the Sky uses more than 200 photographs to outline the High Line's story from its days as a street-level track, through it's abandonment, and its eventual redevelopment. Ten of these photos are shown here.

credit: Author Unknown, 1934

The High Line was authorized in 1929 and, five years and $150 million later, stretched 13 miles through the city. It actually passed through buildings and factories, allowing for easy loading and unloading without disturbing the streets below. This was a huge improvement over the original transportation artery—a street level railroad that became known as the "Death Avenue" due to the frequency of accidents between trains and other traffic. The accidents were so bad, in fact, that the city hired a team of horsemen to escort trains down the tracks. These men were called "West Side Cowboys."

credit: Joel Sternfeld

As truck shipping increased in popularity in the 1950s, however, trains on the High Line decreased in frequency. This trend continued through the 1960s, when the southernmost portion of the line was demolished.

credit: Joel Sternfeld

By the 1980s, traffic on the High Line had decreased to the point where it no longer made sense to keep it in operation. After it was closed, the High Line fell under repeated attack from developers who wanted to demolish the tracks to make room for new buildings. These efforts were fought by Peter Obletz, a Chelsea resident and railroad enthusiast, who wanted the tracks returned to operation.

credit: Iwan Baan

Though Obletz would never again see trains running on the High Line, his efforts did pave the way for a unique redevelopment project. In 1999, a non-profit called "Friends of the High Line" was formed with the goal of returning the High Line to the community as an elevated public space.

credit: Iwan Baan

As support for the redevelopment grew, the movement gained some important advocates including Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Finally, in 2004, the city allocated funds to begin the project, and proposals poured in.

credit: Iwan Baan

Though it had long been a popular destination for locals and urban explorers, redevelopment would allow the High Line to become a unique space open to all. The City of New York committed $50 million to the project.

credit: Iwan Baan

When it fell into disuse, large portions of the tracks fell back to nature as hardy grasses took root in the gravel foundations. The design selected, influenced by the natural plantings that occurred during the period of disuse, makes a quiet invasion of green a focal point.

credit: Iwan Baan

The design also incorporates a trail that leads pedestrians past views of the city and Hudson river.

credit: Barry Munger

Indeed, the High Line, which once served as a major transportation artery in the city, has been reborn as a focal point for the community and destination for visitors.