Once a railroad in disuse, the High Line is now 1.45 miles of green running through three New York City neighborhoods. It’s also a blueprint for revitalization through existing infrastructure, and it wouldn’t exist without Friends of the High Line. Today, the nonprofit conservancy works with the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation to maintain the public space for New Yorkers and visitors, but from 1999 until 2007, it fought to keep the High Line from being torn down.
As of 2014, the High Line has attracted over 20 million visitors. Designers chose the greenway’s vegetation for its sustainability with a focus on species native to Manhattan. Its railroad tracks are still there, integrated into the planting beds.
Opened in 1934, the West Side Line existed under threat of demolition since the 1960s. Established in 1999, Friends of the High Line rallied people in support of its cause while navigating the complexities of zoning laws, economic studies, fundraising, and more. In a book co-authored by founders Joshua David and Robert Hammond, Hammond jokes that someone had nicknamed the fledgling nonprofit “two guys and a logo.”
At the time, CSX Transportation owned the High Line and gave Joel Sternfeld, a nature photographer, permission to document the structure. Friends of the High Line used those pictures at public meetings to impress upon others the structure’s accidental, natural beauty. If you had managed to find yourself on its tracks at that time, you’d have found them covered in weeds, some as tall as trees. Below, many had no idea of the wild beauty above them. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani signed an agreement with CSX Transportation to demolish the High Line at the end of his term in December 2001, but his successor Michael Bloomberg supported Friends of the High Line while running for office. In the forward to the nonprofit’s joint study with Design Trust for Public Space, Bloomberg wrote, “New York City would be unlivable without its parks, trees, and open spaces. They provide aesthetic relief, enhance our health, add to our enjoyment, and increase property values.”
By 2005, the project had survived proposals for a football stadium and raised millions of dollars. It also found a design solution inspired by the natural wildlife that had once grown there. Since renovation began, 1,374 new housing units (132 are classified as affordable units) and roughly 500,000 sq. ft. of commercial office space have been constructed along the High Line. By 2029, according to one estimate, the High Line will bring the city $900 million in revenue.
Friends of the High Line has inspired cities across the globe to take similar journeys by reclaiming infrastructure and transforming it into public space, including Philadelphia, Toronto, and Mexico City.
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