Sure, Peter Obletz, the railroad aficionado, who died in 1996, had tried to preserve the High Line, but since his vision involved restoring it to its original — meaning noisy, smelly and mercantile — incarnation as a throughway for freight trains, his efforts fell short.
—"Two Friends, and the Dream of a Lofty Park Realized," New York Times, July 11, 2008
Peter’s idea was that the High Line could be used to haul construction debris out of Manhattan,” [said Jan Levy, Jan Levy, an Upper West Side resident and former member of Community Board 7]. “If it weren’t for Peter, we wouldn’t be standing here now. I want to get Friends of the High Line to name at least part of the High Line for him,” she said.
—"Saving Flora Where Freight Cars Once Rumbled," The Villager, October 18-24, 2006
* * *
I would like to do two things:
1. endorse the notion that at least part of the High Line (perhaps the part once overlooked by his apartment) should be named in honor of Peter Obletz.
2. dispute the notion that his personal vision for the High Line was focused on freight—or, probably worse from his point of view, “noisy, smelly" freight.
* * *
I’m not an expert on Peter Obletz. I interviewed him once, I think in 1987, for an article in a long defunct business magazine called Manhattan,inc. that I can no longer find. I do have my notes on the interview, however, and I do have an undated 30-page transcript of the tape—typed on an electric typewriter.
Looking at my questions, I can see that like everyone else I was obsessed with Obletz’s plan to restore freight service to the High Line. Was it viable? There’s no question that the plan he had put forward hinged on commercial hauling, and it’s easy to see freight would be associated with his memory.
I’m sure my long and now lost article was obsessed with freight as well.
Reading between the interview’s lines, as I came home and did after taking my first walk on the glorious new High Line park, I became convinced that freight wasn’t really at the center of Obletz’s hopes—it was simply a necessary means to attain them. His vision, I believe, was very much in keeping with what the High Line has become.
* * *
Let’s rewind. (Remember, nothing here is fact-checked. I’m doing the best I can, but I’m on my own.)
In 1984, for $10, Conrail had allowed Obletz and his foundation to take control of the High Line—what he called “a mile and a half long cocktail sausage on toothpicks.”
Obletz, who among other things was the chair of Community Board 4, which covered Chelsea and Clinton, could clearly foresee the changes that would lead to huge increase in development and the population density of the West Side.
As far back as 1978—two years before the last load of frozen turkeys made its way down High Line tracks—Obletz had recognized the old rail bed as a valuable piece of infrastructure that could be recycled in ways that would serve the city well.
It might be an ideal location for light-rail trolleys—something “environmentally sound”—and ameliorate the problems of public access to new construction by the river.
Obletz created a nonprofit membership organization, the West Side Rail Line Development Foundation, and spent five years doing what he called “public education”—trying to interest the city in taking over the line after Conrail stopped running freight and formally abandoned it.
In those years, Obletz told me, Conrail was relinquishing its interest in short, unprofitable branch lines all over the country. This was sometimes a touchy issue. If there were still factories along the lines, the loss of train service might cost hundreds of jobs.
The federal government wanted to give Conrail an opportunity to bow out of money-draining operations, but it nevertheless felt an obligation to help localities preserve valuable real estate for train service if they felt they needed it.
As Obletz explained it to me, under the Northeast Rail Service Act, the procedure for abandoning a line went something like this:
1. Conrail declares a line unprofitable and announces its intention to abandon it.
2. The local municipality is given the option of subsidizing the rail service in a way that will allow Conrail to break even as it continues to operate the line.
3. If the local government isn’t interested, there is a 90-day period in which private entities are allowed to step forward with viable plans to continue to operate the line for railroad purposes. If the plan seems valid, the line must be sold to the private entity for “net liquidation value”—in other words, as Obletz explained it, “at distress-sale prices.”
At the end of 1983, Conrail announced its intention to abandon the High Line. The city made no effort to intervene. Obletz decided he had to act. His foundation would buy the line. If the Interstate Commerce Commission said okay, Conrail could make the deal.
For Obletz, that rail purposes clause was both a blessing and a curse. From Conrail’s point of view, the line was worthless—or rather, it had negative value, since by some estimates it would cost $5 million to demolish. If Obletz promised rail services, he could get control of the infrastructure essentially for free.
On the other hand, what rail purposes could he possibly propose? He had to come up with something, and he had to prove to the ICC that it would at least break even.
Obletz dreamed of trolleys and other amenities in the future, but for the moment he had to come up with something that involved freight. The Northeast Rail Service Act was designed to protect freight service.
Moreover, he’d seen the provisions of the original 1929 agreement in which the city used eminent domain to seize property and install its new freight line. (The line opened to some fanfare in 1934, but much of the business it was intended to support collapsed during the Depression, Obletz said.)
The original documents condemned the land for railroad purposes—but if the railroad activities were every officially declared to have ceased, the easements would revert to the landholders.
Obletz raced to put together a business plan for the line. He was scrambling, as he admitted, “because we spent five years dicking around with the city and state with no response. We should have given up earlier and started to do strategic planning at that point.”
Obletz came up with proposal involving a scrap-metal yard. It would dump its junk on train cars and get it off to market that way. Obletz figured that would generate maybe 300 or 400 carloads of freight a year, and lose a mere $80,000 a year.
How to make up the shortfall? Obletz imagined that something of a “tourist or commercial nature might be doable up there, within our 18 by 40 feet. We never specified what it was, but we said, these are the ideas that we think will generate non-rail dollars to subsidize our primary purposes, which is the rail line.”
As part of that plan, he said, “we proposed that during the time when the trains weren’t running, that perhaps the railroad line could be devoted to some recreational uses for the community—a linear park or jogging paths, something like that."
* * *
It all seemed okay to the ICC, which cleared Obletz as a buyer.
In October 1984, Conrail gave Obletz the rights to the line for $10.
And then, as Obletz said, “all hell broke loose.”
Powerful forces arrayed themselves against him. First and foremost were the landowners and the developers, who were working to get the West Side rezoned for residential projects, but who wouldn’t be able to build them with a hulking metal structure in the way.
The battle over Westway was still underway, and Obletz said his mission to save the railroad became the recipient of some of the bureaucratic wrath aimed at activists who were trying to block the massive highway along the river. (Westway would have eliminated a portion of the High Line, too.)
The “significant public recreation component” that the Obletz foundation had identified in its initial business plan became the basis of legal claims that “we were nothing more than a bunch of community crackpots who were trying to set up a playground up there, that your purposes were not true, and the ICC should reject us.”
In its legal filings, the city denounced Obletz's freight ideas as a "pipe dream" and the High Line an "anachronistic blot on the landscape."
Since Obletz himself had been living in [note: or at least entertaining in, per comments below-ed.] two old railroad dining cars he parked in rail yards at 30th Street and 11th Avenue, he was dismissed as a “train buff” and his plans for the High Line an aficionado’s folly.
“No, no,” said Obletz. “It’s not as if I’m approaching this from the standpoint of some kind of timetable-collecting freak.”
The attacks were draining. Obletz said many of his financial backers disappeared. He said he spent 40 hours a week on the High Line, 25 to 30 hours a week on his real estate and advertising consultancies for the MTA, and another 10 to 20 hours a week at the community board.
“No personal life whatsoever,” he said. “Meetings, meetings, meetings.”
“It was a heartbreak for all his friends to watch him go through all his personal funds for this,” a friend told the New York Times, a decade after Obletz’s death.
By the time I met him, the scrap yard that had initially expressed an interest in freight services backed out, and Obletz was scrambling again, this time touting a plan that responded in part to the closing of the Fresh Kills landfill and involved the use of freight cars to transport construction debris.
Probably not long after my article appeared, the ICC ruled that his plan wasn’t viable and revoked his right to the tracks. His share of the High Line battle was over.
* * *
That should have meant a wrecking ball for the High Line, except that those 1929 condemnation documents never specified who would pay the demolition costs if the line were ever abandoned. The court battles went on, with the railroad eventually withdrawing its request for abandonment rather than pay the millions in fees.
In 1996, Peter Obletz died, at age 50, of cancer.
Three years later, a new group of High Line advocates, led by Joshua David and Robert Hammond, took up the cause. The circumstances had shifted, and they were liberated from the requirement to use line for rail purposes. From the beginning, they dreamed of a public promenade.
Chelsea and the West Village were richer than when Obletz had fought his battles. There were celebrities to support the cause, and powerful politicians willing to jump on the bandwagon.
Nevertheless, David and Hammond encountered some of the same resistance that Obletz had faced.
“Developers balked—and some who wanted it torn down threatened to sue—when Friends of the High Line was formed in 1999 and proposed the idea of turning the railroad bed into an elevated park,” the Times reported.
“Six years later, the corridor is like catnip to the same developers, with more than a dozen projects planned and countless others being considered.”
By 2007, with the first stage of the High Line already under construction, the Times published a delightful tribute to “the charming gadfly who saved the High Line,” in which the High Line’s new saviors graciously gave credit to the man who had come before.
“ ‘There was a lot of affection for him,’ Mr. David said. ‘And there were people who liked us simply because we had found and picked up the thread that he’d dropped when he died.’ “
* * *
By the time I encountered Obletz, he was no longer living in the train cars. I met him at his building, which I remember as being in the 20s, and overlooking the High Line. There was a large fireplace and it was burning wooden planks.
Obletz seemed to have a taste for things that had been neglected, because it turned out his building had also been abandoned and he’d imagined he could fix it up. “It always seems like a good idea until winter,” he said.
Obletz himself seemed slightly incongruous in this unfinished setting. He was wearing a stylish double-breasted suit and chain-smoking More cigarettes. He lit each new one after flicking open a silver lighter, and tossed the butts in the fireplace.
I noted “gray socks and tasseled loafers, black hair with a slightly reddish tinge that suggests dye, moussed up so it stands up. He runs his hands through it a lot and uses words like 'copacetic.' Somewhere between New Wave and Hipster.” Once we got outside, I added, “black Ray Ban sunglasses with thick arms.”
The place had also been overrun with mice. He’d adopted a cat who had kittens, and now the clan was prowling all over his documents, and they’d jump acrobatically as he waved them away.
“Good one,” he’d say, as some cat thumped to the floor.
There were a few vintage New York Central railroad calendars around, but Obletz swore they didn’t mean he was a railroad fanatic. “My mother keeps finding them in antique stores and sending them,” he insisted.
Obletz rooted around in several black filing cabinets, and on one wall a set of floor-to-ceiling doors that opened to reveal shelves packed full with newspaper clippings and letters. When he opened a closet door, more papers fell out.
“I’m drowning in paperwork,” he said.
The whole interview was like that, too. It was filled with talk of dates and agencies and politicians and law firms and all the minutia of legal maneuvers.
There was almost nothing rhapsodic in my transcript--nothing that evoked the passion that Obletz must have felt, no hint of the poetry that for many is now part of the experience of traversing the High Line.
At the end of the formal interview, Obletz drove us over to northern terminus of his beloved freight spur in a roaring old maroon jeep that he rightly called the “Rustmobile.”
We came in near what I think were the Amtrak yards and walked up a nice ramp to the old rail bed, where I marveled at the wonderful sense of spaciousness that persists even after two decades of building, and gawked at the thistles and lamb’s quarters that have been so carefully preserved today.
I’d grown up in the neighborhood, but I’d never stopped to imagine what that railroad bridge up my street might hold. “Wow,” I said. “All these years and years and I never….”
“You have the same appreciation that I do?” Obletz asked. “It just—it just grabbed me. I’ve been walking up and down this line so many times. It burns me that we really can’t do something with this.
“I don’t like the messiness and the graffiti. It just spoils my sense of order. It’s just such an unbelievable eyesore, and it doesn’t need to be that way.”
I don’t think he’d have cared much for noisy, smelly freight. But I do think he’d have liked the park that would never have come into being without him.
“It’s an incredible environment for pedestrians, but it takes a lot of preparation if, you know, we’re committed to things like full access—there’s one ramp and a couple of stairways,” he said. (The initial stage of the High Line park has five entrances over its nine-block length.)
Under the law, Obletz would have been required to continue rail service for only two years. It would be five years before any further sale of the easement would be permitted.
The property owners undoubtedly feared he would hold them up for ransom, but Obletz imagined himself as conducting a kind of civic holding action, trying to find a way to keep the line intact “until the city makes up its mind what it wants to do with it.”
“While we’re talking about rail freight,” he told me, “we haven’t lost sight of the long-term goal, which was public recreation, future mass transit, that sort of thing. And I think we corporately know—and don’t ask me how we know, the crystal ball’s out for repairs—that sooner or later, that 99 percent of this railroad line is going to be spoken for for public purposes, which is why we’ve stayed in it for so long.”