Then&Now: Washington & Christopher High Line

By Brian J. Pape, AIA, Architecture Editor

Then: This 1940 Municipal Tax photo of 634-648 Washington Street views its intersection with Christopher Street, looking southwest. The New York Central Railroad built the St. John freight terminal and this viaduct from 1930-34, succumbing to pressure condemning the numerous pedestrian accidents while the 13-mile surface track, built in 1847 and dubbed “Death Avenue,” ran on West Street and Tenth Avenue. To me, this speaks of the almost almighty influence of railroad barons and profits over human lives, for those 80 years, just as the motor vehicle industrialists have today. 640 buildings were demolished for this viaduct construction, while the former tracks were replaced later with the elevated Westside Highway. Standard Oil Company monopolized Manhattan with ESSO gas stations at nearly every corner, as seen in this unusual station layout, whose building, tucked under the High Line, looks like repurposed rail cars that may have included a diner. Just to the west of the ESSO sign is the 4-story 1935 truck garage, followed by two row houses and a seamen’s hotel at West Street. Credit: NYC Department of Records & Information Services.

Now: New York Central Railroad abandoned the High Line viaduct for most freight in 1960, and totally shut down all operations in 1980 when new owner Conrail had to disconnect the viaduct from the rest of the national rail system for a year, necessitated by the Javits Center construction at West 34th Street; the line was never reconnected or used as a freight line again.The West Village Committee (WVC) was formed as the High Line was abandoned and, led by Jane Jacobs, Dr. Don Dodelson, Rachele Wall, Hilda Burns, and other activists, was the initiator and planner for the West Village Houses low-rise affordable residences. The battles of the WVC included opposing using the High Line as a truck route (imagine the off-ramps!), salvaging open space for park gardens, fighting for better sanitation, and opposing federal title I urban renewal plans for most of the West Village. In those mid-century days the West Village was very close to the working waterfront, an area of warehouses, factories, rowhouses, and tenements. The residential population west of Hudson Street was largely Puerto Rican by the early 1960s, in Jacobs’s account of the WVC founding. The High Line section from Bank to Gansevoort Streets was dismantled in 1991 despite objections from preservationists. The elevated Westside Highway above West Street was replaced, creating the current boulevard, after a protracted victory over Westway proposals in 1985. In the photo of this site we see a section of the West Village Houses at the corner, built in 1974 under the Mitchel-Lama affordable housing government program. To the west, the truck garage was converted to a 6-story condo in 1985, the seamen’s hotel is now part of city-sponsored supportive housing, and the two rowhouses have been removed to make way for future development. The Hudson River and its park are seen at the far right. Credit: BJ Pape, AIA.

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