End Of The Line?
IN 1995 JOHN H. WHITE , Jr., whose article on Robert Fulton appears in this issue, wrote in our pages: “The fate of most abandoned railroads is a speedy dismemberment. … The weeds and trees move in, and soon even those who worked on the line can no longer point out just where it ran.” This description was not meant to apply to urban railroads, of course, especially not to elevated lines, whose dismemberment can be as complicated an engineering and logistical problem as their construction.
A case in point is New York City’s High Line, an elevated freight railroad that made its last delivery—three carloads of frozen turkeys, the historical record shows- in 1980. The line was built to relieve surface congestion, and from that standpoint it was a success: When it opened in 1934, after nine years of construction, it eliminated 105 dangerous grade crossings. It also eliminated an endearing anachronism, the “cowboys” who, under the terms of an old law, were required to ride on horseback ahead of street-level freight trains and wave red flags to warn pedestrians of their approach. In addition, its electric engines replaced the last steam locomotives in service in Manhattan.
The High Line was a wonder in its day, but within two decades trucks took over much of the city’s freight traffic, and by the late 1960s the line was essentially a relic. Today all that remains is a one-and-a-half-mile stub. Since its closure, various schemes have been floated for its reuse, as parts of the line have been dismantled and the remainder has slowly deteriorated. Most recently a group called Friends of the High Line has been promoting an urban version of the Rails to Trails scheme, under which derelict rights-of-way are converted to hiking paths. Instead of a trail, FHL pro poses turning the High Line into an elevated park, with flowers, trees, artwork, and an inspiring view of the Hudson River and New Jersey.
While FHL envisions a rus in urbe , opponents of the scheme see only rust in urbe . Inspectors have found dozens of structural violations on the High Line needing repair, and it will cost at least a million dollars just to fix the most urgent ones. Structural soundness aside, business owners in the area, along with many local residents, think the overhead tracks are an eyesore. Besides, will street-oriented New Yorkers climb several flights of stairs to get to a narrow, windy strip of grass? Especially during winter, which encompasses much of the year in New York?
On the other hand, in overbuilt Manhattan, where many cherished neighborhood parks are smaller than a typical back yard and barely contain enough grass to fill a window box, any new green space is welcome. An elevated walkway in Paris that is similar to the one being proposed has proved enormously popular. FHL has attracted a number of prominent supporters, from Mayor Michael Bloomberg to the former Invention & Technology author Sebastian Junger, who owns a restaurant in the area, and the decorating oracle Martha Stewart (who has yet to write for Invention & Technology ).
A few visionaries argue for what might be the most radical solution of all: using the derelict railroad as a railroad. Henry Boehm, a local rail historian who once cut his college classes to walk the High Line’s entire length, suggests restoring it for light trolley service. By connecting with a west-ward extension of an existing subway line, it could serve the Jacob Javits Convention Center, the popular Chelsea Piers recreation complex, and the Hudson River ferries, all of which line the riverfront half a mile or so from the nearest subway. The problem with this railsto-rails solution, as usual, is money. Even though it would use existing track, the cost of extending other lines and building the necessary infrastructure would be hard to support in the current budget climate.
FHL estimates the initial cost of conversion to a park at $40 to $60 million and is somewhat vague about where the money might come from. Annual maintenance costs would be another $10 million or so. Removing the line would cost perhaps $15 million but would open the door for real estate developers to make large sums, thus swelling both tax receipts and politicians’ campaign chests.
To an outsider, the controversy might seem odd. What community has ever objected to the removal of elevated train tracks? But New York is one of the very few places where people are actually disappointed when their neighborhoods improve. The city also has a history of drawn-out wrangles over land use: The original erection of the High Line required 350 property deals and the demolition of 640 buildings.
In 1992 the Interstate Commerce Commission issued a conditional demolition order, pending an agreement on sharing the expenses. That proved difficult to negotiate. In late 2001, with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani about to leave office, a deal was sealed to go ahead with the demolition, but in March a judge ruled that the agreement had violated city land-use regulations. Thus the fate of the High Line remains uncertain. The CSX Corporation, which bought the line from Conrail in 1999, has not gone on record for or against any specific plan, and at press time a panel appointed by Mayor Bloomberg was reviewing possible uses.