Thursday, February 12, 2015

Lost Wild High Line

About a decade ago, Damon Hoydysh, founder of Highline Studios, climbed up onto the old, pre-gentrified High Line and shot a whole bunch of film--of the weedy wilderness and graffiti tunnels before they were turned into artisanal food courts and tourist outlooks.

He shares it here for a first exclusive look (be sure to watch on full screen):

I asked Damon a few questions:

Q: How did you get up to the High Line to take this footage?

A: I hopped the fence at the LIRR railroad yard at the north end of the High Line. Once you cleared the fence, it was just steps to the beginnings of the High Line. It was really hot that day, and when I got to the end, I had to get down through a functioning meat processing facility on 14th street. It was just one of those moments, older guys in white butcher’s coats looking at me funny as I briskly exited via their huge, full-floor meat locker with my camera over my shoulder.

Q: What attracted you to the old High Line?

A: I was always obsessed with it. I just loved the actual structure, the rusted steel--like the biggest Richard Serra piece you've ever seen. When I first started my company, we were located on 23rd Street right above it, and that’s where the name Highline Studios came from. I've always been drawn to anything transportation-related, and even though the railway was abandoned, it felt like a lifeline that ran right through the heart of the neighborhood.

I loved it over there because the streets were empty and still felt industrial--beautiful old factories with smoke-stacks, rail yards, empty warehouses--just awesome, raw NYC. No condos. It was one of the the last vestiges of the old, gritty NYC that I had known as a kid. When I first got up on the High Line, I realized that it encapsulated all that I loved about the area, perfectly preserved, with gorgeous graffiti galleries everywhere. It was also striking how the vegetation had just naturally taken over and blended so perfectly with all the man-made, discarded elements, it was beautiful.

Q: Do you ever go up to the new High Line? How do you think it compares to the old?

A: I think they did a beautiful job for a modern park, but at the same time it's too sterile and user-friendly. We need to help preserve the street art so that it's not lost for future generations. It’s obviously a difficult balance, but I think the real history and heritage of the area has been lost, and it is pretty over-run with the crowds. It's truly the age-old debate, analog vs. digital. Analog for me any day.

Disney World on the Hudson
Brownfeld Auto
Meatpacking Before & After 
J. Crew for the High Line
Special West Chelsea


Scout said...

I think that the renovated High Line typifies what's wrong with America and humans in general - the masses seem to prefer a prettified, tidy, generic landscape to something unusual, gritty, and interesting. On top of that, the High Line's traffic flow is simply awful - on most days, one feels like a cattle proceeding inexorably down the ramp towards the slaughterhouse. It's a true mediocrity.

Mitch said...

@Scout - And it's going to get worse when the extension uptown is completed.

Laura Goggin Photography said...

@Scout - that was my first impression of the High Line: a cattle chute. Cramped, narrow, crowded, slow, and a feeling of no escape. I'll take wildflowers and weeds any day.

Caleo said...

I used to walk the Highline alone in the very early 00's. You could access the track where it started across the street from the Jacob Javits center. There was a parking lot, with an attendant, and the tracks literally started there. On my first exploration there in 2001, I simply walked past the attendant and hopped up onto the tracks. I thought he would try to stop me but he was completely disinterested. I was able to walk from there all the way to Gansevoort, but couldn't exit anywhere, I simply turned around and walked all the way back.
It was absolutely incredible. I visited frequently in the warm months of 2002 and 2003. There was so much moss covering certain portions of the tracks that you could comfortably lay down, and I did.
It was exactly as he describes it, like the concentrated essence of a grungy New York, a true time capsule that Nature had reclaimed. It was like having an entire, wild landscape all to oneself, for hours on end. Only twice did I ever run into anyone up there. Once was a photographer, and we simply nodded at each other in knowing satisfaction at the glory of the place. The other time I came across 2 graffiti writers scoping the place out.
I twas a truly beautiful, raw environment, and it did take some agility to cross certain portions. There were old train parts and equipment blocking certain areas, as well as old turnstiles at one point, which seemed out of place, because as far as I know the public never rode these lines.
Corrugated barriers had been erected at certain points along the line at various times, but at each barrier some brave soul had simply cut holes into the metal to allow access.
It was amazing to spend entire afternoons up there, walking in the sunshine above the city, alone.
I swore to myself that I wouldn't visit the new and improved Highline when it opened, but my girlfriend persuaded me, and I really wished I hadn't.
It was a shallow, sanitized version of what nature had wrought. No comparison to the original.
Seeing all of the development that has been justified in the name of the new Highline, I almost wish it had been torn down. What seemed like a noble gesture to save it, turned into a nightmare of over development.
A damn shame. They just can't leave some things alone.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic that Hoydysh has preserved the history of the Highline before the "upgrade". Great work.

Oygevalt said...

What a perfect venue to showcase the Invasion of the Gentrischmucks - high above the equally hyper-gentrified streets below, for all the voild to see...oy...

Randall said...

@Scout I agree. Part of the problem is everyone wants a unique authenitc experience, but not everyone is willing to go through the effort to get one; like Caleo did.

Ken Mac said...

High Line, 2008,

Anonymous said...

Fascinating film! Thanks for preserving this magical place, Damon.

John K said...

@Goggla, when it initially opened the High Line was not the mobbed, almost unbearable high end park it is today. It of course also was quite different from the park captured here, or that Caleo describes, or the one pictured in the photos that Ken Mac features on the pre-renovation blog he links to.

The new High Line a beautiful park, though heavily sanitized and corporatized, so I get why locals and tourists love it, but the changes it has helped to enable, which I think many people didn't realize were part of its founders' goals, have had a profound effect on the surrounding neighborhood.

From a sleepy, almost forgotten, still heavily industrial neighborhood, up through the early 2000s, far west Chelsea became the gallery district, and now, like SoHo, some of the galleries themselves are being driven out by the elite housing and service bubble.

Every other new store in this area seems to cater only to the 1%; I wonder how long some of the few remaining smaller businesses can hang on. They have no government protection, and if they don't own their buildings (and even if they do), they're subject to the whims of the ever-inflating real estate market, which is being puffed up by the increasing superriches of the 1%, and, as the New York Times just reported, by billions of dollars worth of foreign wealth, a great deal of from corruption.

It's good to see that old High Line. It like so many things, captured in film and video format, will be all we'll have left of the Manhattan that existed before the billionaires, whom Michael Bloomberg explicitly said he wanted more of and pushed for, have taken over.

Anonymous said...

Well, it's a tough call. Knowing the Highline was doomed to demolition, it's a miracle it's still there at all. So i'm torn - I get the sanitized argument of what's there now- and the cat is obviously out of the bag via every tourist guidebook in the world. But I'm glad it's there and some days/evenings it's not that cattle-y. I think given what it is, they did a great job w/ the architecture and incorporating all the wild plants and trees to honor that notion of nature overtaking/living w/ a man-made structure. At the end of the day, it could've been an abomination but it's not and I'm glad it's there for all to see a beautiful new angle to the city.

laura r. said...

i dont think much of the old highline was beautiful. some of the photos were nice. most was urban decay simple as that. during the week when its empty (not vacationtime) the new highline is a wonderful place to walk. they could have built high rises & distroyed the elevated space, but they didnt. i lived on the corner of horatio& washington in 1989. i never gave a thought of going there. i did like the quiet of the meat district & the one restaurant. because something is old it doesnt mean its attractive or a nice envirement to be in.the new highline is free, anyone can walk there. its a democratic green space.

Unknown said...

I'm very sympathetic with the comments lamenting the loss of "gritty," "industrial," even "analog" NYC, having grown up here (b. 1963) during the Abe Beame years and hearing Predient Ford tell us to "drop dead."

That said, what were the practical alternatives to the old high line? Letting it corrode too much becomes a health and neighborhood hazard, and tearing it down would have eliminated much needed public space and simply paved the way for luxury development anyway. Public-private efforts like this one bring in enough investment and development that NYC can avoid times when the federal government either abandons us or takes too much interest in running the show.

Besides, if you stop walking down the cattle-chute High Line now and sit on a bench to chat or read, it can be truly delightful.

laura r. said...

howard freeman mar 8th 4:44pm well said. i dont understand why this blog glorifies decay/heath hazards. something "delightful" (agree) as sitting on a bench looking @ greens, is negative. you seem to know how things operate. the highline is wonderful. somehow that land was spared of malls, highrises ect. (or drug addicts)