In only 10 years, The High Line has become such a fixture of Manhattan’s urban landscape that it can be hard to remember how radical it seemed before it opened.
As an urban planning grad student during its construction, I remember how heavily the High Line’s proponents leaned on a single precedent to demonstrate the project’s viability: the Promenade Plantee, an abandoned railway structure converted to a pedestrian parkway in Paris in 1993. The idea of an elevated park making use of an abandoned rail corridor felt new, and I had always assumed the Promenade Plantee was the first to do it.
That’s why I was surprised, on a brief stopover in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, to stumble on a vastly older precedent – the Bridge of Flowers.
The Bridge of Flowers is the High Line on a small scale. An abandoned railway bridge over the Deerfield River was turned into a linear park. Much like its New York City peer, it’s become a prominent local tourist draw.
The only difference? The park was opened in 1929. That’s a shocking 90 years before the High Line opened as a park, and, amazingly, it’s 4 years before the elevated rail structure that became the High Line was opened for its original freight rail purpose. It’s fair to assume that 1925 is before most people think of rail infrastructure being abandoned at all.
That’s the other reason I found the The Bridge of Flowers so interesting – it’s a vivid example of the short lived ‘interurbans’, light electric railways that connected smaller American towns and cities. Wikipedia has a decent summary here, but if you really want to go deep, this full length study published in the 1960s is a good read.
The interurbans had an amazingly rapid rise and fall. They were mercilessly vulnerable to competition as car ownership picked up steam in the 1920s. The Shelburne Falls and Colrain’s focus on freight made it somewhat unique, but the same road competition (in this case, from the rise of trucks) did it in.
Much like New York’s investment in the West Side Elevated Line likely didn’t make financial sense in hindsight, the short lived line in Shelburne Falls probably didn’t work out for investors, but it yielded a lasting benefit for the region. Next time I hear someone rave about the High Line, I’ll ask them to drive a couple hours north and visit the original. Until, that is, someone finds me an earlier example.