Volume 77 / Number 48 - April 30 - May 6, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since
1933

Celebrating 75 years:

Newspaper was there at High Line’s birth and now its rebirth

By Albert Amateau

Since 1850, street-level railroad tracks ran down Manhattan’s West Side. Fatal accidents between freight trains and street-level traffic gave 10th Ave. the nickname of “Death Ave.” So a speed limit was established, and for safety, “West Side Cowboys,” men on horses waving red flags or lanterns at night, preceded the trains.

In 1929, after years of debate, the city and state signed an agreement with the New York Central Railroad for The West Side Improvement Project, which included the High Line, a rail viaduct 18 feet to 30 feet above grade between 35th St. and the St. John’s Terminal building at Spring St.

The elevated rail line was completed in 1934.

“Tracks Gone from Death Avenue,” proclaimed The Villager page 1 headline on July 5, 1934. “Famous pony express outrider vanishes from the scene,” the article said. The railroad tracks previously at street level were replaced the week before when Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia traveled the length of the $300 million viaduct.

In the Oct. 18, 1934, issue of The Villager, an article noted that the elevated tracks went through the buildings of the National Biscuit Company, the Cudahy Packing Company and the Bell Telephone Laboratory at Bethune St. (now Westbeth) and Armour, Wilson, Swift, Borden’s and the New York Dressed Poultry Terminal in the Meatpacking District.

But the nation’s transportation system went from rails to roads after World War II. By 1962, the High Line south of Houston St. was demolished and The Villager wrote about a proposal to convert the viaduct into a truck express roadway. The scheme was “a dead duck” when it was declared illegal.

In 1980, The Villager noted that the last train on the High Line carried a load of frozen turkeys.

In the mid-1980s a group of owners of property under the High Line began to demolish the remnant of the High Line. But a railroad enthusiast, Peter Obletz, acquired a title to the line from Conrail, the then owner, for $1. Obletz, who was chronicled in The Villager, became a member of Community Board 4 and envisaged a return to railroad use, and failing that, the creation of an elevated park.

In 1992, the stretch of the High Line that ran through the Village between Houston and Horatio Sts. was taken down to make way for residential development.

In 1999, The Villager began following the story of Friends of the High Line and its founders, Josh David and Robert Hammond, who were advocating for converting the viaduct into an elevated park.

The idea, derided as fantasy at first, soon caught on and Mayor Bloomberg made it the centerpiece of a new West Side with a 1.5-mile-long park in the sky. Work began in April 2006 and the first half of the park, between Gansevoort and W. 20th Sts. is scheduled to open by the end of this year.

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