The High Line (and the Nicollet Mile)

Rumor has it James Corner Field, the landscape architecture firm that designed the High Line in New York City, is designing Nicollet Mall. I’ve seen the plans for Nicollet Mall and offered opinions, but figured I needed to see the High Line for myself. My wife and I did just that on a recent trip to New York City.

My first impression was how wonderful a little green was. Having some vegetation in a city like New York, with block after block of concrete (I mean, what’s a dog to do?) is wonderful (see below).

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Plus you get views of the Hudson River and the harbor.

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Vegetation varied from plantings and flowers to mini-forests, reminding me of what James Corner Field is planning for Nicollet Mall – the “Nicollet Tree Groves.”

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My first realization was how the High Line would feel so contrived if not for the railroad tracks still in place. They are everywhere and very intergrated, quite creatively, with the design. It’s genius, really – it is as if the tracks were installed new. But the fact that they are historic reminds us how few options there were for the High Line, besides being a park or demolishing it. Incorporating history in to new things is wonderful – this is New York today, but don’t forget what it was.

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The weaving of tracks and ties with vegetation, or simply the walkway itself, definitely kept my attention. I honestly feel like the High Line would be severely lacking without these relics.

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The context is historic warehouses.  Yes, you pass through some and under others, but you don’t enter or exit off the High Line.

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But in another way, buildings don’t relate to the High Line. It’s not like a good pedestrian street with many doorways, although that’s not really a criticism. Rather, the High Line feels more voyeuristic (although I’m not sure who’s watching who). From above you can look down on streets below at every crossing, and I’d occasionally spy a rooftop restaurant patio (no access from the high line, but you could see each other). Same with The Standard, a new hotel that actually spans the High Line. When it opened, rumor had it hotel guests would perform certain acts without regard for the window shades, for the viewing (dis?)pleasure of High Line visitors. Needless to say, I spent a moment scanning the windows – not much “action” at 10AM!

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I got the distinct impression we were amongst mostly tourists, or possibly New Yorkers showing out of town guests the High Line upon request. But who cares? We were all having a nice time wandering, taking selfies, having a coffee and browsing the tourist trap wares being sold under the Chelsea Market Building.

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At several places, not only can you see the street below, but there were windows and seating designed precisely for that. I really liked that, although in a way it seemed like the least “New York” thing about the High Line. I mean, New York is it’s streets. Isn’t that true of any city? Observing the streets from above made me miss the chaos, and I was ready to return to New York City. But then I realized the High Line was just another escape from the city, like Central Park or Bryant Square Park, only we were separated vertically rather than horizontally.

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Being suspended above the swarming traffic below was a fascinating thing, and offering seating just to watch the vehicles below and the skyline above, conjured the creative ways James Corner is attempting to connect the skyways of Minneapolis with its neglected sidewalks. I guess the intent is the same – visually (and sometimes physically) connect two pieces of the city populated by people. So whereas I think the Minneapolis skyway system should be dismantled, saving us the huge expense of connecting it to the sidewalk, I can appreciate creative ways to do so, and why not offer benches and formal observation areas in every skyway? Who knows, if James Corner designs a seminal skyway/sidewalk connection, perhaps someday when we do dismantle the skyway system the preservation commission will lobby to historically designate it as an obsolete but important reminder of our past.

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The High Line is a singular thing. It is unique, “being the only one of its kind.” It is an excellent use of an old piece of very sturdy infrastructure, very creatively designed. But really, what else can you do with it? It is a wonderful place to go out of your way to stroll. Apparently Minneapolis would kill for this kind of thing because we hired James Corner to redesign Nicollet Mall in to Nicollet Mile. Because downtown Minneapolis doesn’t have good strolling streets, we have to import them. We have to “High Line” them because we’ve done it to ourselves by creating skyways and inward facing buildings, leaving little reason to stroll our streets in the first place.

Then I realized that as cool as the High Line is, my wife and I also visited Bryant Square Park for the first time while there. I showed her the breathtaking underpass entrance to Prospect Park, and together we jogged through Central Park. We also took an evening stroll under the new park under the Brooklyn Bridge. On our previous visit we spent an evening singalong of Elton John songs in Union Square Park. So, I guess this is simply personal preference, but the High Line is at least sixth on my list of favorite open spaces in New York. Still, everyone should walk the High Line, once.

Perhaps my favorite part of the High Line is the chaise lounges. It was wonderful to be able to lean back and take it all in. Some were even double-wide, allowing couples to sit together.

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The best part – again this ties in to the use of the railroad tracks – was the lounge chairs were actually on the rails, and moveable as a result. Brilliant! But like I said, the High Line would be so much less without those rails in place and so cleverly adapted to the 21st Century city (of loafing, selfie-taking tourists!).

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With regard to Nicollet Mall, or “Nicollet Mile,” as it may be called until it is redesigned again in 20 years, I don’t know how to feel. Perhaps James Corner Field Operations are the perfect fit for the redesign of Nicollet Mall. I have no doubt about their talent, but my primary reference point for their work is the High Line. And as good as it is, it is unique. It is also decidedly not a street. But then again, the Minneapolis skyway system has reduced the importance of streets as urban places where people walk and congregate. The future of Nicollet may provide new ways to view the city around us, but perhaps not to be part of it. Maybe this isn’t a bad thing.

One thing is certain, we’ll never have our own High Line. I realize it is very unfair to compare the two so closely, but in reality the elevated nature of the High Line and our skyway system have major similarities. But maybe, like the High Line, Nicollet Mile will be a place for selfies and Minnesotans to bring their out of town guests. Whereas if I lived in New York I’m not sure I’d feel the need to repeatedly visit the High Line, I hope I feel the desire to visit Nicollet Mile over and over again. Time will tell. For now, I have pleasant memories of my one visit to the High Line and my very own selfie.

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10 Responses to The High Line (and the Nicollet Mile)

  1. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke June 4, 2014 at 10:57 am #

    A wonderful column, Sam. When I was walking the High Line I also stopped and took in a moment of slience at that one moment where you cross over the street, and they have a kind of amphitheater set up to look at the traffic going by beneath your feet. I haven’t thought of linking that space to the skyway system, but now that you mention it, having benches in the skyways at the centers of the road for people to look out and relax would be quite nice!

    Still, I’d rather not spend any time or money on the skyways right now. We need to focus all our attention on the sidewalk and streetscape where the quality of the urban space has been woefully eroded.

    Consider me still skeptical about whether the Nicollet Mall redesign will induce more than cosmetic changes to the downtown Minneapolis experience. But at least we’re keeping Peavy Plaza around to serve as a piece of the street’s history.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller June 4, 2014 at 11:07 am #

      Beyond benches (or something more creative), we’d also need a big change in attitude to turn the skyways into a place where spending some time is tolerated (to say nothing of encouraged). My brother got shooed out of the one between IDS and Macy’s by an over-zealous security guard when he tried to watch the St. Patrick’s Day from there. Apparently the guard thought that’s only tolerated for Holidazzle or something. Way to be welcoming to potential customers, man.

      Please tell me that Peavy Plaza comment was sarcastic.

      • Bill Lindeke
        Bill Lindeke June 4, 2014 at 1:16 pm #

        I like Peavy Plaza. It’s been neglected, but it’s a decent space IMO.

        • Adam Miller
          Adam Miller June 4, 2014 at 2:02 pm #

          I like it, but it’s crumbling and not particularly appealing when the fountains are not functioning (which they are not). And, of course, it lacks (1) accessibility, and (2) much of anything to do there.

          The proposal that was blocked seemed to do a decent job of preserving what’s good about it and addressing both of those issues. But, of course, it was blocked.

          I don’t see it as much of a resource in its present state, but I’m optimistic that they’ll figure out something to do with it.

  2. Nick Magrino
    Nick Magrino June 4, 2014 at 12:00 pm #

    This is a very good reflection about the whole operation.

    Also:

    “I got the distinct impression we were amongst mostly tourists, or possibly New Yorkers showing out of town guests the High Line upon request.”

    Isn’t it weird how you (me) only do the things that are characteristic about the place where you live if you’re showing out of town guests the things that are characteristic about the place where you live? I need to cutback on the video games.

    • John June 4, 2014 at 3:43 pm #

      Absolutely agree. I visited my brother in New York. Him and his friends were pretty negative (if not disdainful) of the tourist spots–except for the High Line. They all loved it. So, Nick I agree with your comment. They may not visit it much but from my experience, they do like it.

  3. helsinki June 4, 2014 at 1:29 pm #

    While unique, the high line is in many ways a jazzier version of a 20 year old elevated rail line turned park in Paris’ 15th arrondissement:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Promenade_plantée

    • helsinki June 4, 2014 at 1:37 pm #

      Sorry – 12th; there is another one in the 15th

  4. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell June 4, 2014 at 2:16 pm #

    Great thoughts. I think I agree with you on your park priority list. Bryant is quite popular with all New Yorkers as is Brooklyn Bridge Park. Did you go down to the soccer fields they built out on the wharf? The high line not so much. Some programming like you see in Bryant or Union would likely help, but how much programming can one city provide or take?

  5. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell June 4, 2014 at 8:01 pm #

    BTW, those lounge chairs on the rails. Sometime in the next 10 years someone might get a finger pinched. They really should fix them in place and fill the space around them with some soft material that won’t hurt if someone accidentally rolls out of one of those loungers.

    As someone pointed out in another thread, death from falling out of bed (or loungers?) is almost as high as death from bicycling.

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