Last of the Westside Cowboys: How the High Line Molded Manhattan



If a child carelessly leaves a door open a sarcastic parent may sometimes ask “Were you raised in a barn?” Well I wasn’t raised in a barn but I do live in one. My flat in West Chelsea once housed cows prior to their slaughter in the nearby Meatpacking District. It is probable that those cattle arrived at my apartment via the High Line, an elevated railway located just a block away.

The High Line was built in the 1930s as part of a huge infrastructure project called the West Side Improvement which replaced the dangerous street level tracks that had earned 10th Avenue the soubriquet “Death Avenue”. The railway declined during the 1950’s due to the increasing use of trucks on interstate highways and the High Line finally closed in 1980. Despite calls for demolition by property developers during the 1980s the local community successfully lobbied to preserve and repurpose the structure for the benefit of nearby businesses and residents. In 2009, after many years of fund raising, design and construction the High Line park finally opened to the public.

The scheme’s impact on the proximate environment has been immediate and immense. Following an influx of commerce and high end property development the High Line has become a byword for urban renewal. The fact that the High Line is perhaps one of the most mediated stretches of railway line in the world is both a cause and effect of its emblematic status as a template for regeneration efforts globally. The park is thus the subject and locus of photographs, television advertising campaigns (Fidelity, T.J. Maxx), websites (, billboards, cinema screenings (including classic train films) and even a comic book (Daredevil).

Given the contemporary media noise it is easy to overlook the influence of the High Line and its forbears in shaping western Manhattan historically. As Varnelis states, “At the turn of the century, telephone and telegraph teamed with the railroad to simultaneously densify and disperse the American urban landscape” (28). It is this paradoxical ability of the railway to simultaneously contract and expand the city that my project will explore in the context of the High Line corridor and Manhattan. Conversely the enormous interest in the cultural, social and economic dividends of the revivified High Line explains why this project is timely for by investigating the past we may uncover information surrounding the High Line’s environmental impact which may guide future planning and decision making.

I hope and intend that my project will reach out to, and connect with, other existing or potential mapping projects hosted by the Urban Research Tool. For example the High Line forms a part of many popular Chelsea walking tours and as such links to Ben Sutton’s Fall 2010 project on New York walking tours. In addition my work might also link to future projects mapping the city’s transport infrastructure and in particular the rail network.

The current High Line park is vestigial.  Using the URT map I propose to plot how the railway line’s path has changed though the decades as a result of expansion and demolition. In addition I plan to post historic photographs taken along the route, identifying the locations on the map and accompanying them with photos taken by myself replicating the viewpoint. In this way I hope to demonstrate how the urban landscape has changed over time. Finally the area’s growing connectivity with the Midwest might he highlighted by delineating the High Line’s relationship with the West Side Line, the Hudson River Railroad and the New York Central Rail Road.

I plan to research archives and databases looking for relevant artifacts to illustrate my project in particular:

  1. Historic photographs;
  2. Newspaper articles;
  3. Illustrations; and
  4. Maps.

as well as my personal photographs. It will be important to remember that although the copyright in some of the historical items may be in the public domain clearance will probably be required in most instances.

Finally to address the question of whether a railway line can truly be defined as “media” I rely on Kittler’s assertion that “Regardless of whether these [infrastructure]networks transmit information (telephone, radio, television) or energy (water supply, electricity, highway), they all represent forms of information. (If only because every modern energy flow requires a parallel control network)” (718).



Eleey, Peter. The Plain of Heaven. New York: Creative Time, 2005. Print.

Friends of the High Line, James Corner, Ricardo Scofidio and Robert Hammond. Designing the High Line Gansevoort Street to 30th Street. New York: Friends of the High Line, 2008. Print.

Friends of the High Line. High Line (  High Line. 4 Oct. 2011. Web. 4 Oct. 2011.

Kittler, Friedrich. “The City Is a Medium.” New Literary History 27.4 (1996): 717-729. Print.

New York Historical Society. “A Piece of High Line History.” New York Historical Society. 15th Sep. 2011. Web. 4 Oct. 2011.

New York Times. “Fight for Right to use Death Avenue”. The New York Times. The New York Times Company. 24 Aug. 1910. Web. 4 Oct. 2011.

Puzo, Mario. The Fortunate Pilgrim. New York: Random House, 2007. Print., History in HD. ( Web. 28 Sep. 2011. Web. 4 Oct. 2011.

Sternfield, Joel. Walking the High Line. London: Steidl, 2011. Print.

Varnelis, Kazys. “Centripetal City” Cabinet 17 (Spring 2004/2005): 27-33. Print.

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