Business Times - 20 Jun 2009
Walk the line
A public garden in the sky transforms a once-gritty New York neighbourhood into a hip destination. By Andrew Marks
ON June 9, the High Line Park - a long-abandoned elevated railroad trestle rising above what was one of Manhattan's seediest neighbourhoods just 10 years ago - opened to the public as New York City's most anticipated park since Central Park was created in the 19th century.
That might sound like an extravagant claim for an industrial-era relic that's been re-imagined as a modest, 1.5 mile-long ribbon of greenery 30 feet in the air, but to walk this freshly minted park is to discover an entirely new and unique way to see New York.
Loosely modelled on Paris's Promenade Plantee, the High Line Park floats over the historic-cum-ultra trendy Meatpacking District up towards the West Chelsea arts district, with the newly accessible West Side Waterfront a block away, stitching these loosely linked and fashionable lower Manhattan neighbourhoods into a whole.
The neighbourhoods it meanders through are destinations unto themselves: the Meatpacking District's chic shopping venues, top restaurants like Buddakan, Pastis and Spice Market, and chic hotels including Hotel Gansevoort and The Standard at the south end; to the north, the downtown Chelsea art gallery scene, an agglomeration of art galleries featuring dealers such as Larry Gagosian, Matthew Marks and Jim Kempner Fine Art, and art-scene bars and restaurants.
But the High Line Park takes the area to a another level, playing a pivotal role in bridging the two hip neighbourhoods, to create a single collective destination that is electrifying New York's already vibrant cultural and social scene.
From eyesore to must-see
Built in the 1930s as an elevated rail line to serve the manufacturing businesses that once lined 10th Avenue - the street-level railway tracks it replaced were responsible for so many accidents and pedestrian deaths that it was known as Death Avenue - the High Line fell into disuse as rail freight gave way to trucking and New York's manufacturing base declined. The last train to run along the High Line passed in 1980, by which time the neighbourhood had been reduced to meat-packing warehouses, while street walkers and drug dealers plied their wares 24 hours a day in the shadows of the rusting elevated railway.
For the next 20 years, the only attention the High Line received was in several attempts to demolish them - including one backed by former mayor Rudy Giuliani. It was only when two local residents, Joshua David and Robert Hammond, formed an organisation called Friends of the High Line, that attention turned to saving the tracks instead.
Messrs David and Hammond enlisted the likes of designers Diane Von Furstenberg and Calvin Klein, celebrity chef Mario Batali, and actors Edward Norton, Kevin Bacon and Sarah Jessica Parker to their cause, giving star-studded clout to their dream of an urban park-in-the-sky.
'So many people fell in love with the project over the last several years, it's a testament to the beauty of the concept and the project itself,' says Ms Von Furstenberg, whose dramatically canted glass geodesic dome of a design studio - built atop an old industrial building that also houses her boutique - is visible from the park.
After nearly ordering its demolition, the City of New York pumped more than US$100 million into financing the park's eventual US$170 million price tag.
Over 30 new residential and commercial developments have sprouted since the City got behind the park, many of them designed by world renowned architects, including Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Robert A M Stern, Shigeru Ban, Renzo Piano and Annabelle Selldorf. Many of them are visible from the elevated park, while others, hidden on side streets, invite further exploration of the neighbourhood.
'From a high-end architecture perspective, West Chelsea might have taken off regardless of the park, but not to this degree or with this level of concentration,' says Tim Crowley, managing director of New York architecture firm Flank. 'Ten years from now, people will be coming from around the world to walk the High Line just to see this architecture,' he says.
Views of New York's classical architectural icons also abound along the half-mile promenade: the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building and the Woolworth Building compete for attention with Frank Gehry's whimsical IAC building, and Jean Nouvel's exuberant 21-story tower with its blue-green glass curtain wall comprising nearly 1,700 individual panels jutting out at different angles to catch the light.
Above the park looms Andre Balazs' eye-catching Standard Hotel, an architectural marvel unto itself. The Polshek Partnership-designed building, named in June as the Best New Building of 2009 by New York's prestigious Municipal Art Society, straddles the High Line on two massive concrete legs supporting a pair of attached, wing-like rectangles of floor-to-ceiling height glass panels.
Setting new standards
Indeed, The Standard will likely become the epicentre for the area's social scene, already one of Manhattan's best people-watching neighbourhoods, replete with models and celebrities.
The Whitney Museum's decision to locate its downtown annex, designed by 'Star-chitect' Renzo Piano, adjacent to the High Line at its Gansevoort Street entrance, will put the final stamp of arts validation on the neighbourhood when its construction is completed in 2012.
In the meantime, visitors will find plenty of art along the first nine-block section of the park (the second half-mile section, running from 20th to 30th Streets, is slated to open in 2010). Some of it can be viewed in the park-level windows of the Phillips de Pury auction showroom, as well as at the High Line's own exhibit space in the semi-enclosed former loading dock of the old Nabisco Cookie Factory. The factory is now home to Chelsea Market, a foodie's paradise of gourmet shops and restaurants between 15th and 16th Streets.
The parks' walkways and landscaping pay homage to the railway it's built upon, integrating strips of original steel track and ties with new concrete that echoes their lines. Benches and lounge chairs are sprinkled all along the path, concentrated in areas with the best views, as well as at the park's 'fountain'. Its Sunken Overlook is a step-down mini-amphitheater, with a big glass window that beckons onlookers to watch the goings-on at the street level below.
The High Line has yet to make its way onto major tourist itineraries, but that's certain to change, as soon as word of this triumphant salvage operation gets out to the world.
Where to stay
The Standard Hotel 848 Washington St Tel 212-645-4646
Andre Balazs's new High Line-straddling hotel is both undeniably chic and unexpectedly affordable. Rooms from US$195-495 a night.
Hotel Gansevoort 18 9th Ave Tel 212-206-6700
Luxurious accommodations and a rooftop bar and pool that draws a celebrity crowd at night. From US$350-975 a night.
Maritime Hotel 363 W 16th St, at 9th Ave Tel 212-242-4300
Noted for its nautical architectural elements, most notably the five-foot portal windows. Rooms from US$295-425 per night.
Where to eat
Del Posto 85 10th Ave. Superstar chef Mario Batali's elegant Italian eatery.
Standard Grill The Standard Hotel. This newly opened restaurant is generating a lot of buzz.
Matsuri Maritime Hotel. Home-style Japanese cooking and sushi bar in a subterranean setting.
Pastis 9 9th Ave. Parisian bistro-style French cooking with a hopping bar scene and outdoor tables in the warmer months.
Buddakan 75 10th Ave. A 16,000 sq ft theme park of a restaurant, serving Chinese classics and fusion with flair.
The Red Cat 227 10th Ave. The classic hangout for the Chelsea arts crowd.
Spice Market 403 W 13th St. Chef-owner star chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten's ode to Indian cooking, the 12,000 sq ft space is a recreation of a Mumbai palace.
La Luncheonette 130 10th Ave. A West Chelsea standby for 25 years, serving classical French food in a cozy space that still feels romantic and tucked away despite its increasingly popular location.
What to do
Chelsea Market. A destination unto itself for food lovers, featuring 25-plus retail food shops, eateries and restaurants on the ground floor of the former Nabisco Building.
The neighbourhood abounds with clothing boutiques, from Diane Von Furstenberg's (874 Washington St) outpost to shops bearing the names of fashion designers Helmut Lang (819 Washington St), Alexander McQueen (417 W 14th St), and Stella McCartney (429 W 14th St).
Ten Thousand Things (423 W 14th St) offers contemporary designer jewellery, while Earnest Sewn (821 Washington St), a high-end denim label, has its flagship store here. For tech-lovers, the newest Apple Store at the corner of 14th St & 9th Ave offers two floors of Macs, iPhones and iPods.
The West Chelsea arts district is home to over 300 art galleries open to the public. Stretching roughly along 10th and 11th Aves, between 18th St and 30th St, the district has become New York's centre for modern contemporary art. If choosing among so many sounds too daunting, New York Gallery tours (http://www.nygallerytours.com/schedule.htm) offers guided tours from Sept-July, and private tours during the summer.
Entertainment and recreation
Chelsea Piers West Side Hwy, at 23rd St Tel 212-336-6666
Want to get away from the galleries and work on your golf swing? Ice-skating, bowling, a gym, climbing wall and spa are also on offer.