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Project Gives Forgotten NYC Rail Line New, Lush Life

In New York City, construction has begun on one of the most unusual and innovative parks in the nation. The High Line is an abandoned railroad overpass that spans 22 blocks on Manhattan's West Side and will become the nation's first elevated park.

The project will transform the rusting, forgotten structure into an urban promenade of lush parkland. It will run a mile and half through the city -- from Greenwich Village to Midtown Manhattan -- and hover three stories above the street.

On top of the elevated rail line, the sky opens up and the sounds of the city drop away. The rails are overgrown in sections with wild grasses and trees.

At Monday's groundbreaking ceremony, many politicians stepped forward to take credit for creating the new park. But in reality, the city nearly condemned the structure and tore it down -- until two community activists saved it.

Seven years ago, Joshua David and Robert Hammond lived in the West Side industrial neighborhood and developed a fondness for the rusting overpass. When they discovered it was doomed, they began lobbying and organizing.

Eventually, David's and Hammond's Friends of the High Line organization encouraged the city to purchase the abandoned rail line. It hosted a design competition to come up with a final look for the park.

That vision is still a couple of years away from completion. Construction workers have begun the process of shoring up the old rusting structure and tearing out the rails; they say they can already see how impressive the park will be.

It had better be. The promise of the elevated park is fueling a real-estate boom in the area. The Westside neighborhood already has a nickname: the High Line.

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Robert Smith is a host for NPR's Planet Money where he tells stories about how the global economy is affecting our lives.