City Pulse

By Patricia Wersinger

Photo by Iwan Baan

Every Saturday at 11 a.m., The Highline offers free tours of the sensational elevated park that has brought a whole new level of cool to the Meat Packing District. Taking one of the tours is a great way to get acquainted with the designed park’s history, public art works and horticulture. Though I have walked this surreal piece of greenway several times, I decided to check for myself what a tour could add to my enjoyment.

The tour starts at Gansevoort Street and Washington Street right in front of the main stairs and finishes at the end of the first section of the Highline. As I arrived, an enthusiastic docent had already welcomed about 40 people, and though surprised at the big turn out on that hot Saturday, he began a detailed account of the neighborhood’s vibrant historical past. You will be surprised at how captivating New York’s early history can be when you stand on the very foundations of one of its oldest sections. Washington Street used to be the very bank of the Hudson River marking the narrowest spot between New Jersey and New York City. It was a strategic location to facilitate the trade of beaver skins that was the main industry in the early Dutch days with Indians hunting on both sides of the Hudson. It was right across the river from where we stood on the steps of the Highline that Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers met his tragic fate in the famous duel with his rival Aaron Burr in Weehawken on July 12, 1804.

Photographer Unknown

In 1840, the area became a big manufacturing center and street-level railroad tracks were put down along Tenth Avenue to help with the shipment of factory-made goods. Hired men nicknamed “West Side Cowboys” waved flags in front of the trains to keep people off the tracks. Yet so many accidents occurred that Tenth Avenue became known as Death Avenue.

In 1929, the street-level railroad was eliminated and replaced by the West Side Improvement Project, which included the Highline. All went well until the 1950′s, when the growth of interstate trucking to move merchandise made the line obsolete. In the 1980s, talks of demolishing the Highline spurred the birth of the non-profit organization The Friends of the Highline. Their advocacy for the line’s preservation and its reuse as a public space led to the creation of the park in 2004. Though the southernmost section from Gansevoort Street to 20th street was inaugurated in 2009, the middle section only opened this past month.

As you move on your way, the docent will point out to you Pier 59, where the Titanic survivors were brought after the boat sank. It is also there that the British liner the Lusitania took off in 1915 before it was destroyed by a German torpedo. So much history surrounds the Highline that you feel as if you had just stepped into one of the cradles of the nation.

Photo by Iwan Baan

Besides a historical overview, the tour gives information about the unusual public art displays in the park. “The River That Flows Both Ways” by Spencer Finch, a series of 700 purple and grey assorted glass panes integrated into the window bays of the former Nabisco Factory (where the Oreo cookie was invented, no small thing!) was the inaugural art installation. Art pieces are exhibited on a one-year rotation schedule. One of my favorites was hearing a voice rise from a simple fountain when I pushed the faucet assuring me that I was a great person and that I deserved to be loved.

A fun way to spend a Saturday morning before and after brunch, the Highline offers unusual views of the city on each side that will provoke “ohs” and “ahs” from the most jaded and weathered of New Yorkers. It is a great venue for people watching or for casual last minute meet ups. You can bring a book or the paper and sit on one of the lounge chairs at your disposal or taste one of the gourmet ice creams sold at stands under the Standard Hotel ‘s straddling arch. Our tour was momentarily interrupted by the procession of the Queen of Belgium who was having her own private tour that morning with TV cameras and secret service in tow. The Queen walked by us in grand style, perched on four-inch heels that made her Highness seem all the more grand. A small reminder that you can find a real mix of people on the Highline, from local hipsters and urban professionals to fashionistas and European Aristocracy, all tiers of Manhattan society are represented and getting along just fine.

Photo by Iwan Baan

You don’t need to sign up to take part in a tour. Though space is limited, my tour was unusually packed that morning at almost 50. You can find more information about the tour at http://www.thehighline.org/tours or just show up one Saturday morning for an eye-opening history tour that will help you see so much more than what meets the random eye.

Originally published July 2011
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