High Line park

People walk along the High Line park, one of Manhattan's most popular tourist attractions,in the Meatpacking District on May 10, 2012 in New York City. (Spencer Platt, Getty Images / May 10, 2012)

— Is it any wonder that a city renowned for its lofty skyscrapers has created a stunning park in the sky?

The High Line Park, a 1930s-era elevated rail line, has been transformed into vibrant green space, perched some 30 feet above Manhattan. There aren't many spots in a bustling city where the cacophony of horns and rushing traffic below melds with the Zen-like peace of an urban sanctuary up above. Yet the High Line, which was opened in 2009 and bills itself as the first public park of its kind nationwide, manages to achieve that feat.

It's a sensory feast with a visual layout and meticulous landscaping worthy of a French Impressionist canvas. More than 300 species of plants, wildflowers, shrubs, grasses and trees sprout from the beds of industrial railroad tracks, some of vintage steel and others that have been carefully restored. An interconnected series of concrete planked paths and walkways with pebbles underfoot meanders for a mile, winding its way through several New York City neighborhoods.

Art abounds: from sculpture, photo installation set against the backdrop of the sky, signature design flourishes such as art deco railings. Here and there are slatted benches and grassy plots where one can read, relax or savor views of the Hudson River and such landmarks as the Empire State Building.

It all makes for a delightful way to commune with nature and the urban landscape. Whether for a day trip or a weekend in the city that never sleeps, the park has drawn folks from near and far.

"The High Line welcomed more than 3.7 million visitors in 2011," says Kate Lindquist, a spokeswoman for the park.

Recent park surveys show nearly 50 percent of those who enjoy the site are New Yorkers, she said. "The remaining half is split between visitors from other parts of the United States and abroad."

The High Line joins the pantheon of New York City green spaces (including Central Park) that offer oases for urbanites. While Central Park dates back to the 1800s, the origin of the High Line Park is a more contemporary tale.

It's the familiar saga of local residents who, faced with a neighborhood problem, galvanized the community and pushed government officials to help them with creative solutions. Prior to 2009, the abandoned tracks were overgrown and the surrounding environs had seen better days.

The elevated tracks were built in the 1930s to move dangerous freight traffic off busy streets. The last freight train to make its journey across the tracks overhead passed through in 1980, toting a shipment of frozen poultry. During the administration of former mayor Rudy Giuliani, the High Line was slated for demolition. That was until area residents Joshua David and Robert Hammond decided to start a movement. In 1999, they established an advocacy group, Friends of the High Line, intent on turning the defunct rail into an elevated park and greenway.

It took a decade of planning, as well as public and private investment. Friends of the High Line raised millions from local residents and celebrities such as designer Diane von Furstenberg. Meanwhile, the rail structure south of 30th Street was donated to New York City by CSX Transportation, Inc.

Construction began in 2006, and three years later, community partners joined Mayor Michael Bloomberg in unveiling the first section of the High Line.

A second section has since opened and a third addition to the park is in the planning stages.

Today, the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, the "Friends" and a team of horticultural experts work cooperatively to ensure that the 6.7-acre park is well-maintained and tended to day to day.

On a recent weekend in New York, crowds of students, adults and children enjoyed the scenery and sun.

The High Line also hosts weekly stargazing nights at which astronomy buffs and others can view the stars and planets with telescopes. There are walking tours, opportunities to see art exhibits, and culinary vendors where one can grab a gourmet popsicle or a taco.

Meanwhile, the city beckons and bustles underneath the park. The High Line spans three dynamic Manhattan neighborhoods: the Meatpacking District, West Chelsea, and Hell's Kitchen/Clinton.

When the original High Line was built back in the '30s, these communities were bastions of industrial warehouses and factories. Now, travelers will not only see new residential areas, but also art galleries, design studios, retailers, restaurants and museums.

To that end, the southern tip of the High Line is the future location of a new Whitney Museum of American Art. Construction is under way at the site (at the corner of Gansevoort and Washington streets) with a projected opening date of 2015, according to officials.