NEW YORK (WABC) --The last stretch of New York's High Line officially opened Saturday, completing one of the nation's most distinctive urban transformations: an abandoned stretch of elevated rails that's been turned into a linear oasis of flowers, grasses and trees.
The last, half-mile section finishes the 22-block walkway that over five years has helped drive the hip gentrification of the Chelsea neighborhood on Manhattan's West Side. Luxury condos, galleries and boutiques have all but pushed out the industrial grime around the old freight route that once delivered goods to warehouses, meatpacking and manufacturing plants.
"The High Line has changed the dynamics of the city," says Laurance Rassin, an artist showcasing his paintings and sculptures to visitors along the three-story-high walkway. "If Picasso were alive, he'd be painting on the High Line."
"I get to talk to everyone from students to movie stars, and I find out about different parts of the world," says Rassin, who lives in a luxury high-rise overlooking the new, northern stretch.
That stretch curves around Hudson Yards, a mammoth high-rise development that by 2024 will be home to more than a dozen new skyscrapers. Sections of rusty tracks are still visible in spots, a reminder of the area's dirty and dangerous past.
Street-level freight trains that ran on Manhattan's West Side between 1851 and 1929 caused so many accidents that Tenth Avenue was known as "Death Alley," and so-called "West Side Cowboys" on horses rode in front of the trains to prevent collisions with vehicles and pedestrians.
That hazard led to construction of the elevated High Line in 1934, allowing freight trains to roll right up to and, in some cases, inside buildings to deliver milk, meat, produce and other goods. The rise of interstate trucking led to the railway's demise, and the last train ran in 1980, pulling carloads of frozen turkeys.
In 1999, when the weed-choked relic was under threat of demolition, a community-based nonprofit calling itself the Friends of the High Line was formed to find another use for it.
"We wanted to create a space where people could be immersed in nature," said the group's co-founder, Robert Hammond.
Today, the High Line park - built with $223 million in both government and private funds - draws nearly 5 million visitors a year, offering an expansive view of midtown Manhattan and the Hudson River. Visitors walk on concrete slabs softened by grasses, shrubs, and trees peeking from crevices and benches surrounded by blossoms.
On both sides along the High Line, private day-to-day lives becomes public.
One afternoon, a dog poked its head out of a brownstone window. And at night, with apartment lights on, a woman could be seen cooking in her tiny kitchen, steam rising from a pot.
"I've never seen anything like this, up in the air where you walk, and you can sit on benches in the sun near little gardens," said Renata Buergel, an attorney from Hanover, Germany. "It's a highlight of New York City, something new and special, young and green."
For some, it means more money coming in.
At the High Line Pizza shop just under the elevated park, employees say business has more than doubled in the past two years.
But there's a downside to the success. Some businesses in run-down brownstones have simply been shuttered as rents rise in the now-hot neighborhood.
For Auto Designs NYC, which customizes luxury cars, the nearby High Line is a nuisance.
"We get nothing out of it," said employee Peter Makar. "Our rent went up, and about 16 times a day, I get asked for directions to the High Line."
"And it's right here," he adds, pointing up.
The third section on the High Line at the Rail Yards, a public park will open this weekend.
At a ceremony Saturday, board members of Friends of the High Line and other officials public celebrates 15 years to preserve the High Line., which is now a popular park and tourist attraction.
Friends of the High Line is the 501(c)3 non-profit and partner with the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation.
The new section is the final one for the elevated former railway on New York's west side. It officially opens Sunday.
The high line stretches from 34th Street to Gansevoort Street.