Ten metres above 17th Street, carpenters were hammering planks together, electricians were bringing in lighting and gardeners were schlepping in bundles of plants. If you looked up from the construction site, there was New York in the weekday sun: the brick bunkers of the Meatpacking District stepping up to Midtown's cascade of office towers, capped by the Empire State Building. If you looked down, at the bed of an old elevated rail line, you could see leafy plants sprouting up through a carpet of gravel.
And they weren't weeds. Those little shrubs and perennials were crucial pieces in one of the world's most innovative new landscapes: the High Line, a park that blends wild-looking plantings with sculpted concrete in a unique promenade above the streets.
This week, the work was finished as the park's first leg opened to big crowds: visitors and New Yorkers including Edward Norton and Diane von Furstenberg, all lining up and following art-gallery-like rules to check out the water features, public art and views. (Enter at the south end, walk to the north. Don't pick anything. Don't throw anything.)
And one of the men who made it happen, Josh David of the group Friends of the High Line, was as nervous as a new dad. "The park is going to take a beating for the first while," he said in the buildup to the opening. "It's going to be a huge attraction - if we can fit enough tourists up on it."
Overcrowding and movie-star traffic jams aren't an issue at most parks, but the High Line isn't like most parks. "It's like nothing you've ever seen," David says. "You're walking through the ghost of an old railroad line that has been made into a dramatic new park."
It's also a magnet for money and culture. is a theme park for New York's best contemporary architecture, including the edgy Standard Hotel (which literally straddles the line), a Frank Gehry office building and a wild condo tower by Jean Nouvel. It's a uniquely New York kind of a place - and a work of urban alchemy, transforming a 20th-century industrial artifact for the 21st-century city of culture and tourism - that cities around the world would love to copy.
For visitors, it's a singular experience thanks to the tension between past and present. The High Line is a strange piece of infrastructure, a 1930s workhorse that cuts around and through former warehouses and factories. A decade ago, it was a relic of the old, brawny, industrial New York. But after going quiet in 1980, it went through a surprising evolution.
"The gravel bed had become the base of a self-sown natural landscape," recalls David, who first saw it as a neighbourhood activist in the late 1990s. "Seeds had drifted out of the air. … It was a lush and beautiful ribbon of grass and meadow flowers and trees."
The memory of that uncultivated, unlikely landscape is part of the park's design, overseen by landscape architecture firm James Corner Field Operations. "The idea was to make a place for people that didn't destroy the very properties that made the High Line such a magical phenomenon," principal James Corner says. "A lot has to do with retaining that quality of wildness and melancholy."
The design proposal includes principles that don't sound very New York-ish: "Keep it simple; keep it wild; keep it quiet; keep it slow."
Original rail tracks were laid back in place and interspersed with new plantings that look like the old, plant life; pathways of delicate concrete ribbing weave across the tracks and between the original elaborate steel railings.
There are also a few architectural wow moments, mostly thanks to New York architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro. At one point, you can relax on a grandstand of sculpted hardwood benches - while hanging vertiginously over 10th Avenue, looking through a big window over the heads of the rushing uptown traffic.