For the first-time visitor to the lower reaches of western Manhattan, the rusting viaduct looks like a relic from the Victorian age. But the High Line freight railway, which only closed in 1980, represents a dream come true for a group of urban visionaries.
The group, including the likes of Danny DeVito and Glenn Close, has been fighting a losing battle to save the elevated line from demolition and turn it into a park in the sky.
One thing has made a crucial difference: a new man in charge of New York. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has unexpectedly reversed a demolition order issued by his predecessor, Rudolph Giuliani. The Friends of the High Line have now launched a competition to design the new route.
This is not what local commercial leaders wanted to hear. Unmoved by any fascination for a line that snakes 1.5 miles from the Meatpacking District to 34th Street with several spurs – sometimes vanishing into buildings and re-emerging again – they decry the viaduct as a blight.
But the Friends of the High Line pointed to the national programme already in place to turn old sections of track into public footpaths and asked why the same couldn't be done in Manhattan. The urban setting, they said, made the case more, not less, compelling.
The Mayor's vision is even more expansive. His office said it favoured not only the greening of the elevated track but also a rezoning of neighbourhoods that touch upon it to encourage new residential development in its shadow. The only problem will be finding the funds in a time of budgetary crisis.
If it happens, one of the grittiest corners of Manhattan will suddenly be transformed by a narrow and winding slash of verdant growth. That is a prospect apparently fitting well with the gentrification already taking hold in much of the area. Mr Bloomberg won the instant support of Gifford Miller, the speaker of the City Council. "I believe – and I think the administration has also seen – that when you consider the possibilities for a preserved and reused High Line as a public space and a signature moment in the New York landscape, that the positives are almost limitless," Mr Miller said.
The change of heart comes just in time. The line, which bore freight wagons that rumbled through the neighbourhoods for almost 50 years, belongs to CSX Corporation, the national rail company. It had been under orders from the city to begin knocking it down.
In their most ambitious moments, the Friends of the High Line envisage an addition to the city of almost Parisian charm. More specifically, they have in mind the Promenade Plantée in Paris, which was once a busy rail artery but today is a landscaped walkway.