The Spur, which currently features Simone Leigh's "Brick House" installation
Liz Ligon, courtesy The High Line The Spur, which currently features Simone Leigh's "Brick House" installation

This past June, almost a decade after the High Line first opened in 2009, and long after I’d written it off as a place that isn’t really for New Yorkers, I rediscovered it. Unexpectedly, my epiphany came when I was visiting its new neighbor, Hudson Yards, with a group of students to tour the Shed, the development’s multipurpose arts institution, and to climb the 154 stairways of Vessel, the Thomas Heatherwick–designed folly, in an attempt to discuss the overall honesty of the place (we’d been reading John Ruskin’s “The Lamp of Truth”). We gathered in a little elevated plaza, called the Spur, located immediately east of 10 Hudson Yards.

Built in the 1930s, the Spur originally connected the old rail line to the post office distribution center, a mammoth facility on 30th Street. It wasn’t included in the original High Line design, but after a dogged “Save the Spur” campaign, the city embraced the idea. In early June, the Spur finally opened, the last section of the High Line to be completed. My students and I sat on a set of tiered bleachers, constructed of artfully arranged piles of lumber—the perfect spot to discuss 19th-century architectural theory in 21st-century New York.

The Spur
Timothy Schenck, courtesy The High Line The Spur
The Hudson Yards courtyard
Ajay Suresh The Hudson Yards courtyard

The contrast between the Hudson Yards plaza, designed by Nelson Byrd Woltz and still a work in progress, and the Spur, designed by the same team that fashioned the rest of the High Line—James Corner Field Operations, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and the horticulturalist Piet Oudolf—was striking. With its own massive artwork, currently a 16-foot-tall bust of an African American woman by artist Simone Leigh, and views up and down 10th Avenue, the Spur felt welcoming, a place where you could hang out for hours. It’s a kind of antechamber, a spot to pause and adjust when leaving the streets of Manhattan for the rarefied atmosphere of Hudson Yards.

But I didn’t fully comprehend what made the Spur feel so different until later the same afternoon, when I said goodbye to my students and headed south along the High Line to Greenwich Village to rendezvous with some friends at a bar. Justin Davidson, New York magazine’s architecture critic, recently lamented that the High Line has become “an elevated cattle chute for tourists, who shuffle from [Renzo Piano, FAIA’s] Whitney Museum to Hudson Yards, squeezed between high glass walls and luxury guard towers.” But some of the people I passed were office workers heading home, deftly weaving their way through the selfie-shooting hordes with the no-nonsense briskness of real New Yorkers. Clearly the High Line has become a pedestrian parkway for locals. I also realized that it still gave me pleasure to travel along it, to look at the surrounding city from above street level, peering down side streets and taking note of the changing architectural tableau, my walk entirely unimpeded by cars and stoplights.

View of Hudson Yards from the top of Vessel
Ted Eytan View of Hudson Yards from the top of Vessel

Aspects of the elevated walkway that felt overdesigned a decade ago—the benches that sometimes appear to grow directly out of the pavement, the seating areas that step downward toward views of the street, the careful plantings, the blocks of concrete with carefully spaced cracks in between—now struck me as generous. Maybe it’s because so much of the world seems contrived today, but there’s a sincerity to it, an honest desire to respond to the needs of the public, to draw them in, to inspire their curiosity, to make them notice the underlying structure of the park, the artworks interspersed with the plantings, and also—maybe especially—to observe the surrounding city.

The High Line may have touched off a global movement to turn every neglected industrial remnant into an urban destination, but it also inspired a backlash. The over-the-top nature of neighboring development—a penthouse apartment in a High Line–adjacent Zaha Hadid–designed condo was recently listed for $48.8 million—tends to support the argument that this park, and every new urban park, is an evil act of alchemy, helping to transform a functioning city into an obscenely luxurious one. But I think the backlash misses an important point.

The High Line heading north under the Standard Hotel
Shinya Suzuki The High Line heading north under the Standard Hotel
Zaha Hadid's condo building along the High Line
Maria Eklind Zaha Hadid's condo building along the High Line

A Softening of Sharp Edges
To better understand the High Line on its 10th anniversary and the impact it’s had on the surrounding neighborhood, much of it in response to the park and the rezoning that accompanied it, I decided to take a couple more walks. One by myself and one with Robert Hammond, the High Line’s co-founder and executive director.

The High Line begins south of West 14th Street and stretches north to 30th, where the main section of the elevated walkway swings left and wraps around the west end of Hudson Yards in a looping path—a refreshingly under-landscaped section—and then slopes down to meet West 34th Street at the spot where Megabus riders line up to board their bargain coaches. On a Tuesday morning in early July, I started my solo jaunt at the south end, where a few meat warehouses are still tucked beneath the structure. I climbed the wide staircase adjacent to the Whitney, and was thrilled to find a set of public restrooms that I assumed were part of the museum. (Hammond later told me that they’re housed in the Friends of the High Line headquarters, also designed by Piano. “Were they clean?” he asked. Yes, they were.)

Landscaping along the High Line has matured in the last decade and helped soften the project's sharp edges
Tristan Loper Landscaping along the High Line has matured in the last decade and helped soften the project's sharp edges
The High Line, which has become a pedestrian freeway for locals
High Line/Robert Hammond The High Line, which has become a pedestrian freeway for locals

In 2009, when Hammond’s co-founder, Joshua David, gave me a pre-opening tour of the High Line, the so-called Gansevoort Woodlands at the southern end consisted of scrawny saplings, which today have become credible trees—not huge, but big enough to offer shade. Much of the greenery now looks gangly and overgrown, like something from a more natural setting. The messiness of the flora has softened the design’s original hard edges and has lessened its self-consciousness.

A parallel efflorescence has happened next to the High Line, a spurt of development along its path. This boom may be happening throughout New York, but it’s been magnified here by the narrowness and elevation of the High Line. Initially, the fact that the project was a magnet for architecturally adventurous development seemed like a good thing, an animating moment for a stodgy city. Just ahead of the 2008 economic downturn, pioneers like Neil Denari, FAIA, and Della Valle Bernheimer completed joyously weird, angular apartment towers full of pricey condos. At the time, I regarded the area around the High Line as Manhattan’s first real 21st-century neighborhood. The recession put the 21st century on hold, but only briefly. On my recent walk, I noted the new buildings, including several under construction that I’m optimistic about, in particular Studio Gang’s office building on 10th Avenue, just north of the landmark Standard Hotel, which will feature a black glass façade with a fractal look, shaped to direct the sun onto the High Line and reduce glare on the nearby roadway.

Studio Gang's office building along the High Line
Nic Lehoux Studio Gang's office building along the High Line
Heatherwick's High Line condo towers, with windows that bulge like a bug's eyes
Heatherwick Studio/Courtesy Related Co. Heatherwick's High Line condo towers, with windows that bulge like a bug's eyes

Where West 18th Street meets the High Line, the development has reached a fever pitch. To the west is BIG’s XI complex, consisting of two skewed towers, one 34 stories and the other 25, both housing luxury condos. The tower closer to the High Line will also include a hotel on its lower floors. Immediately north are a pair of Heatherwick-designed condo buildings, 21 and 10 stories tall, respectively, with one on each side of the High Line. Their most conspicuous feature are the windows: oversized and multi-paned, they bulge like a bug’s eyes. My sense is that the BIG project will be better served by its eccentricities than Heatherwick’s, but it’s too soon to judge. In both cases there’s an attempt to relate somehow to the aesthetic demands of High Line proximity, a kind of unwritten zoning requirement for fabulousness.

What I noticed as I walked north is that the closer you get to Hudson Yards, the more banal the towers become. The High Line ethos peters out as buildings like 507 West Chelsea come into view—a black glass rental apartment building that bills itself as “luxe living on the High Line” but seems more like an offshoot of Hudson Yards.

Vessel in the Hudson Yards courtyard
Phil Roeder Vessel in the Hudson Yards courtyard
35 Hudson Yards, SOM's aerie
35 Hudson Yards, SOM's aerie

New York Without the High Line
What would this stretch of Manhattan have been like without the High Line? How much development would have happened anyway? What if Hudson Yards existed, but the High Line didn’t? What then?

I posed these questions to Hammond during our walk a few days later, which began at the Spur. He took pleasure in pointing out details that I had failed to notice, like the fact that the Spur has public restrooms, easy to overlook because the signs are inconspicuous to the point of being invisible. But the most interesting story he told was about the park’s prehistory. According to Hammond, in the 1990s, then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was intent on tearing down the High Line because he wanted 10th Avenue to be redeveloped as a high-rise residential corridor, much like Sixth Avenue in Chelsea, which was rezoned from manufacturing to high-density residential in 1995. According to Hammond, Giuliani considered the High Line an obstacle to the construction of apartment towers, so it had to go.

Philip Johnson's model for the Chelsea Walk apartments
Philip Johnson Philip Johnson's model for the Chelsea Walk apartments

Giuliani, of course, wasn’t the only one with a bead on the far west side. Schemes for redeveloping its largely industrial neighborhoods had been in the works since the 1950s, when the Hudson Yards site was considered for a major project by the legendary developer William Zeckendorf. In the 1970s, Philip Johnson, according to Mark Lamster’s 2018 biography of the architect, The Man in the Glass House (Little, Brown & Co.), designed “an enormous middle income housing complex” called Chelsea Walk for the same site. Those schemes weren’t realized, of course, but the subsequent demolition of the old West Side Highway in the late 1970s and early 1980s opened the west side of lower Manhattan to high-end residential development and spurred the creation of another real estate magnet, the Hudson River Park. A couple of blocks west of the High Line, and a work in progress since the 1990s, the park has “attracted $3 billion in new construction at 94 new buildings in adjacent neighborhoods,” at least according to the project’s website. (That total probably doesn’t include “Diller Island,” the $250 million Heatherwick-designed remake of the Hudson River Park’s Pier 55, a project funded by Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg and scheduled for completion in 2021.)

In the late 1990s, Peter Eisenman, FAIA, had contributed his vision for the west side when he won an ideas competition for a site atop the railyards. His scheme called for an office tower on the current site of Madison Square Garden as well as a new sports arena and television studio complex, all situated on a deck over the yards, along with a lot of parkland—not to mention a football stadium submerged in the Hudson River. Eisenman’s concept never had a prayer of being realized, but it was a harbinger, and the area above the railyards soon became a draw for luxury development.

An Open-Air Museum of the Present Moment
All of which is to say that remaking of the far west side would have happened without the High Line’s transformation, even if it wouldn’t have happened in quite the same way. Indisputably, much of the development directly along the elevated park was the result of a 2005 rezoning that encouraged such growth, with the assumption that the additional real estate tax revenue would more than cover the cost of the park’s construction. The High Line, not including the Spur, cost about $187 million to build, the bulk of that—$123 million—coming from the city. Initial estimates predicted that the park would increase real estate tax revenue for the city by $250 million, but that figure was soon raised to $900 million in estimated revenue by 2038.

The Riverside South project
Jim Henderson The Riverside South project

Clearly the city has turned a tidy profit on its investment in the High Line. The question is whether that investment was worth it. Would New York be better or worse off without the High Line? The answer depends on whether we (those of us not in the market for a $48 million penthouse, anyway) get any value out of having buildings by Hadid, BIG, Heatherwick, and other luminaries in our city. If the alternative scenario would be the High Line as an undeveloped industrial ruin, surrounded by a West Chelsea of taxi garages and low-rent artists, I’d say screw the starchitects. But the more likely scenario, assuming the High Line hadn’t been restored, would be something that resembles Riverside South, a mostly residential complex some 30 blocks uptown along another disused railroad property. A lineup of 19 buildings with little to recommend them architecturally, they nevertheless remain largely unaffordable to most of us. The High Line, for better or worse, created a context for a kind of residential architecture that hadn’t previously existed in New York City. We couldn’t have gotten the park without the development, but we could easily have gotten the development without the park.

During our walk, Hammond pointed out a seating area along the walkway that connects the Spur to Hudson Yards and that includes a bench designed to allow you to lean back and look up at the buildings. It’s a cool idea, never mind that the view is of the less-than-inspiring pinnacle of 10 Hudson Yards. This kind of detail is the thing I love about the High Line, that it’s designed to immerse visitors in the city around them, a virtue that’s even more striking after you’ve experienced Hudson Yards’ uncanny isolation from the familiar patterns of New York City life.

An inclined bench along the Spur, which offers a view of 10 Hudson Yards
Liz Ligon, courtesy The High Line An inclined bench along the Spur, which offers a view of 10 Hudson Yards

What Davidson described as a cattle chute, I regard more as an open-air museum of the present moment. If you walk west of Ninth Avenue and north of the Whitney Museum, the city looks and feels radically different than it did a decade ago. The High Line encouraged the arrival of the 21st century in a city that didn’t otherwise welcome it and has become the perfect vantage point from which to watch the subsequent changes unfold. The crowds can be insufferable, as they are for any blockbuster exhibition. But it’s also a great show. If you want to immerse yourself in the New York City of right now, the High Line is still the place to go.