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Manhattan’s West Side: A History of Neglect

West Side Line Improvements (1934)

Often called the “last frontier” of Manhattan real estate development, the West Side between 14th and 61st Streets has not grown to the scale of the rest of midtown Manhattan for one reason: there are currently no mass transit or regional rail systems servicing the West Side. In the decades before subways, Manhattan’s West Side was dominated by a street-grade freight line stretching from the northern tip of Manhattan to the current inbound entrance of the Holland Tunnel. In turn, much of the surrounding areas were industrial and Manhattan’s west coast was occupied by rows of shipping piers. As the electric engine gained popularity in the early 1900s, the West Side Line was submerged between 30th and 60th streets and elevated south of 30th street onto what is now the High Line. With the rise of the automobile, New York City residents moved out of Manhattan and into the suburbs in droves, and any hopes for a West Side subway line were officially shelved with the construction of the elevated West Side “Miller” Highway. After World War II, Manhattan’s West Side faced further decline as the Miller Highway went into disrepair and containerization rendered Manhattan’s older shipping piers ineffectual. Finally, in 1973, in the midst of the city’s wide scale urban renewal efforts, a section of the Miller Highway collapsed. Manhattan’s West Side had hit a low point. But, on the horizon, a new signal of the future of Manhattan’s West Side was rising—the World Trade Center.

Along with the twin towers came Battery Park City and the razing of the Miller Highway. Over the next several decades, Manhattan’s West Side saw a gradual transformation away from the industrial hinterland it once was. Neighborhoods like Hell’s Kitchen and West Chelsea became popular for younger residents and start-up businesses. The meat-houses of the Meatpacking District became posh lounges and restaurants. The once-booming Chelsea Piers, after falling into disrepair, was revived as a one-stop entertainment and sports complex. And in the last decade, Manhattan’s West Side has seen the development of Hudson River Park and the High Line, resulting in an influx of new office and residential buildings. However, the most significant changes to Manhattan’s West Side are still on the drawing board.

Next: West Side Development Zones...