Manhattan Up Close
The Charming Gadfly Who Saved the High Line
By JOHN FREEMAN GILL
FOR all the giddiness surrounding the transformation of the High Line, the city's favorite elevated railway, into a linear park running from the meatpacking district to Hell's Kitchen, nearly one-third of it remains in danger of being torn down. The stretch between 30th and 34th Streets, where the High Line loops gracefully around parts of the railyards between 10th and 12th Avenues, is shaping up as the last battleground for the innovative project.
For Mr. Obletz, the railyards west of Penn Station were not a hotly contested development opportunity, but literally his backyard. Beginning in the late 1970s, when the western fringe of Hell's Kitchen was such a forbidding wasteland after dark that cabbies would not take riders there, Mr. Obletz lived in the railyards in a formerly derelict concrete-block railroad building near 30th Street and 11th Avenue. Next door, on a spur of track, he kept two elegantly appointed antique rail cars he had obsessively restored.
A train buff's train buff, Mr. Obletz worked as a real estate consultant for the transit authority and gave elaborate dinner parties in his gleaming, 68-ton Pullman dining car. Places were set with New York Central Railroad china and flatware, with the host sometimes attired in a blue velvet smoking jacket and saddle shoes.
"He was an absolute charmer," said the playwright Paul Rudnick, who along with other creative types like the choreographer Tommy Tune was a guest. "It was such a treat to visit him because you felt you were leaving New York, and in a sense planet Earth. You'd entered Train Land."
Mr. Obletz's rail cars sat a stone's throw from a long, rusting overhead structure. One day he climbed a metal staircase and stepped with astonishment onto what he later learned was the defunct 1934 freight railway known as the High Line.
"It was a terra incognita up there," Mr. Obletz told a New York Times reporter for a 1984 article. "Unrestricted space. Unimaginable tranquillity."