A Walk to the End of the Line: The (Almost) Untouched Third Section of the High Line

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The terminus of the High Line at the West Side Rail Yards, part of the third and final section of the elevated rail line to be added to New York’s favorite, not-quite-new-anymore public park and the site of new art installation. Photos and Text by Laura Tepper, except as noted.

A Walk to the End of the Line:  The (Almost) Untouched, Third Section of the High Line Is Open for Previews

The northernmost and last unfinished section of New York’s acclaimed High Line park won’t open to the public in earnest for at least another year, but this summer small groups of lucky ticketholders have the opportunity to experience the 300-yard stretch of urban wilderness in the raw. High Line park rangers are leading visitors on a series of sold-out walks along the yet-undeveloped site known as the “High Line at the Rail Yards,” or simply as “Section 3.” The tours occur under the premise of previewing “Caterpillar” a site-specific sculpture installation created by Brooklyn-based artist Carol Bove. However, the landscape itself steals the show. 

The High Line, of course, is a wildly successfully public park built atop a 1.2 mile-long decommissioned elevated freight rail structure that runs along Manhattan’s west side. Sections 1 and 2 of the park weave through the Meatpacking District and Chelsea between Gansevoort and 30th streets and attract so many visitors, both locals and tourists, that it can be hard to move through the more narrow sections of the park.

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A crowd herds slowly through a tapered part of Section 2

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Sunbathers vie for seats on the custom rolling lounge chairs of Section 1 (Image courtesy of James Corner Field Operations)

Section 3 begins at 30th Street where the completed sections of the park end. From here, the main tracks wind around the Western Rail Yard along the Hudson River and end at 34th Street across from the Jacob Javits Conference Center. A short spur (known as the Eastern Rail Yards of Section 3 or just “The Spur”) extends east along 30th as well.

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Context Map of Section 3 (Image via Friends of the High Line)

The feral landscape of Section 3 offers insight into the High Line’s past in between being decommissioned in 1980 and redeveloped as a public park a quarter century later. In stark contrast to the suspended bleachers, milled granite pavers, and rolling chaise lounges of the completed sections of the park, Section 3 is a self-seeded landscape of scrap and debris. Roughly 1’-2’ of rock ballast cover the structure and it is in this medium—amidst the railroad ties, steel rails, and reinforced concrete—that an ecology of crab apple trees, black cherry, bayberry, wildflowers and grasses emerged.

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For sections 1 and 2, the original rails were meticulously labeled, stored and replaced in the context of milled granite pavers and lush planting.

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In section 3 the tracks have remained in place creating a ground condition decidedly different from the already completed portions of the park.

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A thin layer of topsoil generated from rock ballast supports a remarkably diverse array of vegetation.    

THE JOURNEY

To get the sneak peak of Section 3, you pass through a locked-gate on 34th Street and duck under a thicket onto the tracks, which begin at grade and gently peel up to cross the Rail Yards.

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Jordan Benke of High Line Art leads the way to Section 3 from the High Line’s northern terminus at 34th Street.

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The tracks slope up from grade at 34th Street.

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View towards the Northern Terminus of the High Line at 34th Street across from the Jacob Javits Conference Center

The tracks bend to run parallel to (and offer impressive views of) the Hudson River and wind around the Rail Yards, soon to be part of “Hudson Yards,” a planned 24-acre “new neighborhood” with a hefty 12 million square feet build-out underway.

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View of Section 3 looking east from the Hudson River Parkway

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View of the Section 3, behind the West Side Rail Yards, looking west from Section 2 of the High Line

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Section 3 in Context of Hudson Yards Master Open Space Plan (Graphic via Related Companies)

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Section 3 winds its way parallel to 30th Street

Sections 2 and 3 meet at a T junction above 30th Street where the Spur extends east over 10th Avenue towards Midtown.

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Old meets new, looking up from 30th Street at the junction of sections 2 and 3. 

THE EXHIBITION

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“14” is one of seven sculptures by artist Carol Bove, constructed of steel I-beams and installed on Section 3 at the Western Rail Yards

Currently (and through May 2014), Section 3 is home to a collection of seven site-specific sculptures created by Carol Bove at the invitation of High Line Art, which manages the park’s robust public art program. The sculptures—constructed out of industrial materials like steel I-beams and rough concrete—are, according to the exhibition literature, intended to “punctuate the wild landscape” and “reveal themselves among the unruly vegetation, like mysteriously pristine ruins of a lost civilization or a contemporary version of a Zen garden.”

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Bove refers to her oversized, thrice powder-coated steel curlicues “Celeste” (left) and “Prudence” (right) as glyphs.

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“Visible Things and Colors”, constructed of concrete and brass, approximates the size and shape of the rail line’s switch boxes and is easily overlooked.

The work is embedded in, straddling, and cast aside the rails, alongside the other beautiful textures and objects found on the site. This serves Bove’s intention of putting the detritus of the High Line on display as “Readymades,” the term Dadaist Marcel Duchamp used when placing everyday object (like a urinal) in a museum.

The installation—composed of careful insertions that offer perspective on, but do not disrupt the landscape—speaks to the immediate future of Section 3 at the Western Rail Yard. Though “designed” by the same team (James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro), when it opens to the public next year it will continue to have an entirely different feel from the rest of the High Line, with most of it remaining au natural.

WHAT’S NEXT

Over the course of the next year, one set of tracks will be filled with resin-bonded aggregate to create a narrow path (termed the ‘Interim Pathway’) along which, in an ideal world (or rendering), one might meander pondering the remnants of things past. This path and a safety railing will be the only developed elements.

This interim design strategy facilitates the speedy timeline for opening, impressive considering that the City of New York only closed the purchase of Section 3 last summer.  It is yet unclear how long that “interim” might last and what will succeed it.

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Rendering of the “Interim Pathway” at the Western Rail Yard of Section 3, looking south. (Rendering by James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Courtesy of the City of New York and Friends of the High Line.)

The long-term prospects of the High Line at the Eastern Rail Yard, on the other hand, are somewhat clearer and do not involve any urban wilderness. The Spur will be built out separately from its Western counterpart in concert with a new hotel condo complex at the South Tower of Hudson Yards. Demolition is already underway with the rail ties, soil, ballast and tracks having been cleared to prepare the concrete deck for the construction.

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View of the Spur, looking east from Section 2 of the High Line at 30th Street.

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Renderings of “The Spur” at the Eastern Rail Yard where it will meet the South Tower of the Hudson Yards development. (Renderings by James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Courtesy of the City of New York and Friends of the High Line.)

The vision for this piece of Section 3 is more in line with the existing park, which has inspired, evolved with, and is embedded in surrounding developments. Construction is proceeding rapidly everywhere around the High Line, not just at Hudson Yards, but throughout much of the former meatpacking district and Chelsea.

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Construction is underway at Hudson Yards using the Spur of Section 3, which has been cleared down to its concrete deck, as a launching platform.

The transformation of the urban environment is its own spectacle beyond the park itself. Jordan Benke of High Line Art observed that the park has become a place to watch construction, an observation deck. People sit in amidst the pounding of jackhammers and watch the city evolve.

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Visitors sit surrounded by scaffolding, watching construction proceed apace.

In light of this change and densification it seems like a poetic and uniquely New York gesture to let the High Line touch down with an air of wildness. It’s worth questioning whether the experience of the Interim Pathway will remain as intended once the masses overflowing the Sections 1 and 2 make it that far, but we’ll leave such questions to the fire marshal and relish this taste of post-industrial nectar while it’s still sweet.

Note: Tickets for the guided walks are sold out through August 3rd but this week Friends of the High Line released tickets for walks through the end of September.


LTepper_200x200Laura Tepper is a San Francisco-based designer, writer, curator and educator. She  practices urban design and landscape architecture at WRT, where her work focuses on public parks, campuses, and infrastructural landscapes. She is a regular contributor to Curbed SF, occasional lecturer at UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design, and full-time outdoor enthusiast.

Image Credits: All photos by Laura Tepper unless otherwise noted. 

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  1. Pingback: Urban Omnibus » Roundup — Evacuation Zones, Rebuild by Design, Tech Triangle, Charge in the Park, Rethinking Infrastructure, and The Olympic City

  2. A Walk to the End of the Line: The (Almost) Untouched Third Section of the High Line

    It would be great if a crew of botanists were to go through Section 3 to get an idea of the plant communities there.

    Also, given the bottlenecks at the other sections of the park, that pathway looks too narrow by half, at least.

  3. Pingback: Be inspired by the untouched section of the high line | Genus Landscape Architects - Melbourne

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