Manhattan still loves the high life

New York's beloved sky park, the High Line, is about to double in size. The former railway has helped change the way a whole area sees itself.

The stereotypical New Yorker: assertive, fast, sceptical, focused on making money and determined to turn every moment into an achievement. This month, a linear sanctuary elevated above Manhattan is being doubled in length, challenging our ideas of these ultimate urban dwellers with lessons for those of us who live in cities everywhere.

This June, the celebrated High Line, the park which runs along the West Side of Manhattan, will flow from the heart of the stylish Meatpacking district through fashionable Chelsea all the way up to 30th Street. Though the extension of this former raised railway has not yet been opened, you can glimpse its promise through still-locked gates.

Section Two will include as much of a forest as you can cram into a narrow railway, "The Chelsea Thicket" of winterberry, redbud and large American hollies – and something rare and precious in Manhattan: an expanse of lawn. The Lawn "peels up" at 23rd Street to offer a vantage point of both sides of Manhattan Island.

Since the original High Line opened two years ago, people have come to use this raised urban park in a unique and subtle way, almost as if they were wandering around an art gallery. You can't run with your dog, skate or cycle through the High Line on your way to somewhere else. Instead, the meandering stream of wooden paths, which you are forced to take to avoid stepping on the "wild" species, encourages you to take your time. The height of the park provides a new perspective on the skyscrapers, water towers and fire escapes around you.

Instead of getting you to where you need to be quickly, the High Line celebrates attention to the very moment, echoing the thriving mindfulness movement led by Jon-Kabat Zinn. His meditation classes, books and CDs have become increasingly popular as a way to become aware of what he calls the nowscape.

I saw visitors taking off their shoes and wiggling their toes as they dipped them into a stream of water, looking intently at a plant with red, comically wavy arms, or pointing out small architectural details of the surrounding warehouses. The idea of street as theatre, and the park visitors as an audience of the New York street, is formalised in the tiered wooden seating which invites you to sit down and view 10th Avenue through a large transparent sheet. When Section Two opens you'll have the opportunity to compare life here with the viewing spur at 26th Street, where you can look at a different section of 10th Avenue through a re-imagined billboard.

This precious opportunity to step out of time has been carefully protected against an excess of commercial encroachment. While there is space to eat, on carefully scattered tables and chairs, there are no food or drink stalls. When Section Two opens, this purity will be challenged, but only by those who offer food that is "thoughtful and creative". Artists are permitted to talk about and sell their photographs, paintings and jewellery, as long as they have created their work themselves. Public art blossoms, like the current bell-sound installation by Stephen Vitello. Every minute his "bell tower" tolls with an everyday sound recorded from somewhere in the city, ranging from a child's toy phone to a boxing-ring bell. This presents you with a way to tune into sounds we often ignore.

I came to know a less-salubrious side of this area in the course of my first job in New York many years ago. I was sent to the area around the Meatpacking district to convince young male and female prostitutes to leave their haunts around the vacant parking lots and venture up-town to Columbus Circle and the studios of public TV to join in a discussion on street children. I only later came to understand the dark fear that this part of town engendered in many New Yorkers.

Today the area has been transformed. There are still cobbled streets and occasional signs for Milano's Italian Sausage and Weichsel Wholesale Beef & Lamb, but these are nestled between high-end boutiques from Alexander McQueen and Dolce & Gabbana. The hip Standard Hotel bestrides the High Line, with its roof-top night club equipped with a plunge pool. Yet Standard visitors aren't able to slip into this sanctuary directly from their five-star luxury. Like everyone else, they must ascend the metal staircase one block down.

The democratic nature of the High Line is also reflected in the way the park is funded. It is owned by the city itself, while the non-profit Friends of the High Line, employs the gardeners. There are frequent notices to encourage you to become a friend but, rather than money giving you access to an exclusive society, these are public clubs which confer their privileges, plants or programmes, upon every member of the community. Some stretches of the park are sponsored, by Tiffany's or a generous individual, but this is only recorded in discrete metal plaques.

The High Line also offers us a new way of engaging with nature in the city. With a touch of irony, it introduces an element of wildness which echoes its abandoned origins. When the freight trains stopped shunting milk and meat along the tracks in 1980, the disused line provided shelter for wayward seedlings which planted themselves in the decaying metallic structure. The landscape architects who created the park drew inspiration from what had grown wild and today the park shows off no exotic varieties of plants, largely nurturing those which are native to the North-east US. Section Two will feature a wildflower field full of perennial blooms, which naturally alter every few weeks. Despite the rich array of tulips and cat's tail grasses which are lovingly chosen and carefully tended, they sprout amid the railway tracks as if they were self planted. From street level, you can see hints of hidden green spilling over the metallic sides. Casper, a German High Line park gardener, told me that when the Sumac tree is open fully in summer, he revels in seeing its palm-tree profile visible from street level.

Perhaps more than any other city, Manhattan has self-consciously unfolded on multiple levels. The shortage of space due to the limits imposed by the surrounding water has encouraged New Yorkers to gaze skywards and nurture their roof gardens. The High Line draws upon the ideas of the French architect Le Corbusier who tried to create garden cities in the air.

But all cities, especially those with deep historical roots, are also multi-levelled, with past generations hiding their secrets beneath our feet.

I feel renewed cycling alongside the canals of London, which flow like deep cuts through that city. I can fly free of traffic lights and 21st-century congestion and touch London's early industrial past. The High Line, in contrast, lies above the present-day ground level, hinting towards the future, with birch and magnolia trees challenging our very idea of what is ground. Perhaps because of the evolutionary advantage that a greater height gave us on the wild savannah, looking down on the world increases our sense of wellbeing and encourages us to think beyond our quotidian concerns.

Though the High Line is only two-years old, it is already cherished by New Yorkers and tourists alike. Its value doesn't come from a deep historical tradition, but rather because it has been salvaged from destruction, as a record of renewal and restoration. While it is apart from the city, it is not remote; you literally vibrate with the buzz of the world below. There is no silence but a celebration of all that New York offers, but one step removed. You are encouraged to contemplate the city's past and your place within the New York narrative without being seduced by its glittering charms. In a city where you traditionally have had to spend money to have a real experience, the High Line is teaching New Yorkers how to reflect and enjoy being a little more austere without feeling deprived.

Emily Kasriel is executive producer of 'The Forum', the BBC World Service programme about ideas ind.pn/wstheforum

The parks that gave green life to urban decay

Turia Gardens – Valencia

When the Turia River flooded Valencia in 1957 and caused extensive damage, residents decided to divert it and turn its bed into parkland. This park snakes through the centre of the city, injecting a green vein between the old and new parts of the Spanish port city.



Parkland Walk – London

This former railway runs from Finsbury Park to Alexandra Park and is London's longest local nature reserve. It follows the path of the disused London and North Eastern Railway and abandoned stations can be spotted among the wildlife.



Jackson Square – New Orleans

Situated in the French Quarter, Jackson Square was originally called the Place d'Armes and was a place for military parades and public hangings. Declared a National Historical Landmark in 1960, it is now one of the most lively and well-used parks in New Orleans.



Promenade Plantée – Paris

The Promenade Plantée and Viaduct des Arts follow the old Vincennes railway line. With the reformed viaduct's arches containing shops, restaurants and showrooms, the idea was to bring culture and life to a struggling area of Paris. The park, running for three miles from the Bastille, features landscaped gardening and an elevated walkway similar to the High Line.

Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

    The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

    What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

    Inside a church for Born Again Christians

    As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
    Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
    Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

    Incredible survival story of David Tovey

    Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little