Photographer: Stephen Wilkes
Subject: High Line Park, New York City
Camera: Linhof 4x5 view camera with 28mm lens and digital back
Exposures: From 1/60th of a second to 2 seconds
Walking the Line
Time was when steam locomotives ruled the American countryside, huffing and puffing and whistling their lonesome song, delivering mail, milk, freight, and Aunt Emma, coming for a visit, to big cities, small towns, and crossroads with only a shack for a train station. Time came, however, when trucks carried more freight than boxcars and it was easier for Emma to drive places than take the train. By the 1950s railroads seemed to be busiest ripping up steel and ties from unprofitable lines, including 32 miles of track between the Wisconsin towns of Sparta and Elroy, a line trains stopped running on in 1964. What made this particular closure notable was the purchase of the scenic right-of-way, with its three tunnels and 34 bridges, by the Wisconsin Conservation Department for the nation’s first rail trail. The news set off a chain reaction as communities realized that old railbeds could have a second life as linear recreational attractions. According to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, there are currently 1,534 developed trails totaling 15,346 miles in the United States, with another 789 projects covering 9,501 miles in the works.
The longest continuous rail trail? For now it’s Missouri’s 225-mile Katy Trail, while one of the shortest—and surely the most unusual—is New York City’s spanking-new High Line Park in lower Manhattan. Currently nine blocks long, the park is depicted here in Stephen Wilkes’s extraordinary panoramic scene showing a segment of the former West Side Line, from noon to twilight. The location is the intersection of 17th Street and 10th Avenue, and Wilkes relates that his aim was “to make the definitive photograph of the High Line, showing how it meanders through the city.” Since no rooftop offered the view he wanted, Wilkes hoisted a large-format digital camera and heavy tripod into a rented cherry picker, shooting pictures at noon, 3 p.m., and 9 p.m. and merging them on his computer with PhotoShop.
It’s easy from this image to see why High Line Park, which opened on June 9, attracted more than 300,000 visitors—city folk and tourists—in its first six weeks. There’s the Sunken Overlook, with amphitheater-style seating above busy 10th Avenue; bucolic niches where one can picnic or read a good mystery; and, for strollers, dramatic views of the Hudson River and the Manhattan skyline. Indeed, The New York Times has dubbed the High Line “A Railway Out of Manhattan,” which is cool, since the West Side rails once brought much of the city’s food into the borough. The trains ran on street tracks—with all-too-frequent pedestrian deaths—until 1934, when a 1.5-mile viaduct was built south from 34th Street into the Meatpacking District.
But like other railroads, traffic on the West Side Line waned, and the viaduct was abandoned to wild grasses and flowers. Then in 1999 a community group, Friends of the High Line, launched a campaign to turn the ruin into a park that will reach from Gansevoort to 34th Street. The $172 million project (for the first section) was designed as both a retreat from street life and a reminder of the city’s past. For there are still places where plants thrive between rusted rails, and if you listen carefully, you just might hear the clickity-clack of freight cars filled with sides of beef and crates of oranges.—Les Line
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