The High Line was built in the 1930's as part of a huge infrastructure project called the West Side Improvement which replaced the dangerous street level tracks that had earned 10th and 11th Avenues the soubriquet "Death Avenue". The railway declined during the 1950's due to the increasing use of trucks on interstate highways and the High Line finally closed in 1980. Despite calls for demolition by property developers during the 1980's the local community successfully lobbied to preserve and repurpose the structure for the benefit of nearby businesses and residents. In 2009, after many years of fund raising, design and construction the High Line park finally opened to the public.
The scheme's impact on the proximate environment has been immediate and immense. Following an influx of commerce and property development the High Line has become a byword for urban renewal. The fact that the High Line is perhaps one of the most mediated stretches of railway line in the world is both a cause and effect of its emblematic status as a template for regeneration efforts globally. The park is thus the subject and locus of photographs, television advertising campaigns, websites, billboards and cinema screenings.
Given the contemporary media noise it is easy to overlook the influence of the High Line and its predecessor, the New York Central Railroad, in shaping western Manhattan historically. By investigating the past we may uncover information about the High Line's historical environmental impact which may guide future planning and decision making. This project focuses on the West Side Cowboys, equestrian signalmen who alerted pedestrians on 10th and 11th Avenues to the approach of oncoming freight trains. The goals of the project are threefold: Firstly to demonstrate how the built environment in the vicinity of the High Line has changed over time; secondly to encourage visitors to appreciate the materiality of archival photographs as significant historical artifact in themselves; and thirdly to memorialize the West Side Cowboys, the men and boys who safeguarded the public for over eighty-five years.