My wife and I were in New York on vacation, and as part of a hike, walked a portion of what’s called the High Line. The reason it’s called the High Line is that it runs way above street level.
“It’s an elevated railroad about 30 feet off the ground, and it runs for about a mile an a half right through the middle of Manhattan," said Robert Hammond, who was born and raised in San Antonio and now lives in Chelsea, the Manhattan neighborhood sung about by Joni Mitchell, and where those tracks are. Hammond jumps forward a bit in the story.
“Now we’ve put up stairs and elevators every two blocks and there’s this wild landscape on top,” he said.
That wild landscape is actually a highly sculpted, very deliberate planting by internationally known landscape professionals. More on that soon, but first, a little more backstory on how this all came about. Back in 1999, that former elevated railroad track was slated for demolition.
“Giuliani really wanted to tear it down but then the new mayor at the time Bloomberg was really supportive of it," Hammond said.
Hammond and acquaintance Joshua David had this wild idea that the hulking iron mess from a bygone era should be saved. Not that they had any experience that was even remotely related to their objective.
"Josh was a travel writer and my background was in small, for-profit startups,” explained Hammond.
They faced a wall of opposition for the project, and had no practical experience.
“Most of the people in the neighborhood just thought it was an eyesore," he said.
Hammond and David finagled their way with the railroad owner to go up and see what the line was like from that perspective. All they had seen was from street level. What they found was nature reclaiming the elevated railroad. Hammond describes it this way.
“There was this mile and a half of sort of wild gardens, running right next to the Hudson River, right through Chelsea and the meat packing district," he said.
From what they'd seen, their plans soon changed from saving the railway, to re-purposing it as a park. So they formed a friends organization and began raising money, amassing talent, and bungling their way toward their objective.
"We thought our chances were about one in a hundred of it happening," he said.
I asked Hammond at what point did he think, "Wow! We’re going to pull this off!”?
He laughed, then said: “I don’t think it was until we opened in 2009; ten years later!”
Fast-forward to the present and Hammond and Davis did pull it off. Against the odds they raised the money, convinced authorities to save the High Line from demolition, and more amazingly, turned into a park. So what’s it like?
“It’s always changing," Hammond said. "There’s always different grasses, there’s parts with trees. There’s blooms that come up all the way from February to December.”
The Friends of the High Line enlisted the help of several top horticulturists to re-landscape the unusual park.
“Pieter Ouldof is a Dutch Horticulturist who is famous for the wild grassland,” Hammond said.
Many varieties of tall, wild, wind-blown grasses mix with the flowers, shrubs and trees of the High Line, four seasons of ever-changing nature. Hammond said the High Line has a function different from many big city parks.
“It’s not an escape from the city — a lot of parks are meant to be an escape. The High Line is a part of the city," said Hammond. "You can see the buildings around you and I think that’s why people like it. It’s beautiful, it’s full of nature, but it’s part of the city.”
Oddly enough, Hammond isn’t the only San Antonian having such a big effect on New York’s finest parks, as Hammond explained.
“Betsy Barlow Rogers, who created the Central Park Conservancy, is from San Antonio. And Warrid Price, who created the Battery Conservancy, is also from San Antonio,” he said.
Three San Antonians have shaped three different standout New York City Parks, which is pretty amazing if you think about it.
The High Line takes no city money, instead operating as a nonprofit to maintain the park and its 450 free programs and events each year.
High Line Documentary: