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New York City loves its High Line, the trail in the sky

NEW YORK - It is a new and still-growing trail.

It's not long: Just 1 mile, or 19 blocks.

Welcome to the High Line Trail in the heart of New York City. It is known by some as the "Miracle Above Manhattan" and "The Trail in the Sky."

The rail line-turned-trail sits 30 feet above the crowded streets on Manhattan's Lower West Side. It's gotten a lot of ink because it is a distinctive urban trail. There's even a hardcover book about its short history.

It is an expensive trail: $153 million and rising. But it has provided a $2 billion boost to surrounding neighborhoods, city officials say, with the addition of nearby art galleries, boutiques and restaurants.

The High Line Trail with its distinctive Art Deco railings is part park, part promenade, part town square, part botanical garden, part a place to be seen. It is a ribbon of public greenery along its north-south route near the Hudson River.

It draws 2 million people a year as one of the newest tourist attractions in New York, a city that in 2011 got 50.5 million visitors who generated $48 billion in economic impact.

The High Line Trail combines an integrated system of concrete pathways, seating areas and architectural features along with naturalistic plantings. The pedestrian-only rail-trail features a walkway of planked concrete designed to remind visitors of the rails, and even includes old sections of steel rails.

It is above and removed from the on-the-street scenes below. It is surrounded by old warehouses and modern high-rises, offering a modern cityscape with a historical flair.

Sometimes you feel that you are deep in urban canyons surrounded by big buildings. At other times, it offers wide-open vistas with skyscrapers visible in the distance.

In winter, both the East River and the Hudson are visible from the High Line at 23rd Street and at 14th Street. In other spots, you can see the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building.

It is an example of urban reinvention, providing a dose of community and recycling a historical industrial landmark.

The trail was in the planning stages for more than a decade. National Geographic magazine calls it "one of the most innovative and inviting public spaces in New York City and perhaps in the entire country." It has been inducted into the national Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's Rail-Trail Hall of Fame.

The Friends of the High Line group includes more than a few celebrities, such as actor Kevin Bacon, fashion designer Diane Von Furstenberg and hotelier Andre Blazs.

The city-owned trail winds through some of New York's hippest neighborhoods: the Meatpacking District, West Chelsea and Midtown West.

The first section runs from Gansevoort Street north a half mile to 20th Street. That opened in June 2009. The next section, 10 blocks from 20th to 30th Street, opened in June 2011.

"The High Line is already a world-renowned destination and New York City icon and with the addition of Section 2, it makes for an even more enjoyable experience," Mayor Michael Zloomberg said at its opening. "The second half mile adds different views and new features, making it distinct from the first section but no less remarkable."

Plans are under way to route the trail around the rail yards for another half mile north of West 30th Street to West 34th Street. That section is owned by CSX Transportation Inc.

The grass-roots nonprofit friends' group operates and maintains the trail. It provides 70 percent of the maintenance and operating funds.

The first rail line along the route began service in 1847. It delivered produce, meat and dairy to factories and packing plants on the West Side.

The trains frequently crashed with horses and later with cars. Tenth Avenue was called Death Avenue. Signalmen waving red flags rode horses to alert others, and were dubbed the West Side Cowboys.

But the safety problems continued and the rail line was elevated in 1934.

In the 1950s and 1960s, trucking reduced the need for the High Line and manufacturing moved away. In 1980, the last train ran along the line, hauling frozen turkeys.

In 1999, activists Joshua David and Robert Hammond formed the friends group and called for the preservation and reuse of the High Line with its black steel bridges and columns as public open space. They have written "High Line: The Inside Story of New York City's Park in the Sky" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $29.95).

New York City got the line from CSX Transportation Inc. in late 2005, and construction on the first section began in 2006. The tracks were removed, carefully mapped, tagged and stored. The steel was sandblasted and repainted, concrete was repaired, drainage problems were fixed and pigeon deterrents were installed underneath.

Hundreds of feet of old track now run the length of the High Line. Some of the track sits above the pavement, with flowers poking through. Other pieces are embedded in the concrete. Gently sloping or peel-back benches and narrow water fountains add to the sleek, modern look.

The trail from 20th to 30th streets offers a less industrial feel than the original section. It includes lush green lawns, lounging spots, art exhibits, sun decks, lots of blooming flowers and public astronomy programs. There is even seating in front of windows that offer looks onto the streets below.

The newer section has reclaimed teak seating that includes a curved, block-long radial bench starting at 29th Street. It also has 4,900 square feet of green lawn from 22nd to 23rd streets. And, yes, visitors are welcome to walk on the grass.

The undulating structure at 23rd Street is a 14-story condo tower with a relatively tiny footprint that broadens as it rises, leaning 10 feet over the High Line.

At 13th Street, check out the meatpacking hooks atop an adjoining building. On the trail's west side, you will see a line of large metal brackets on top of an adjacent building. The brackets once anchored meat hooks to unload trains. The Meatpacking District was once home to more than 250 slaughterhouses, some of which are still operating.

You can reach the High Line Trail at nine points, four of which include elevators. The trail is fully wheelchair accessible, with restrooms and drinking fountains along the way.

Dogs are prohibited. That's mainly because rainwater is directed to plantings along the trail, and dog urine could kill the plants.

Some sections are lush with vegetation. The friends' group publishes a monthly guide to plants growing and blossoming along the trail.

Hours are 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. (summer). In winter, it closes at 8 p.m. Admission is free. For information, contact the Friends of the High Line at 212-206-9922 or http://thehighline.org.

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Bob Downing: bdowning@thebeaconjournal.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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