Friends of the High Line staff have known neighborhood resident Tommy Flamer for a long time. Before Section 1 opened, Tommy was a fixture at all of our Rail Yards hearings, community meetings, and public programs. We would often spot him walking underneath the High Line, looking up. Always curious and ready to chat, his excitement and friendly demeanor led to quick friendships with many of us on staff. Since the park opened, Tommy sightings on the High Line have been commonplace.
When I finally got to sit down with Tommy on a brisk December evening to ask him some questions, I found an untapped treasure chest of historical information on the High Line and the surrounding neighborhood. Tommy has lived in Chelsea since 1968, and has lived in his current home on 18th Street since 1979. As a young man he worked as a stock boy at the now defunct Valley Drugs, a pharmacy on 14th Street and 7th Avenue, and then as an elevator operator in London Terrace and at the Leo House.
SK: What was your neighborhood like in the 80’s?
TF: There were too many prostitutes and drugs back in the 80’s and early 90’s, and too many shootouts. I wasn’t excited about the neighborhood anymore because I had memories of watching the freight trains when I was a kid. In the early- and mid-90’s I used to wonder what they were going to do with the High Line. When Friends of the High Line came around, I really got excited about it again. Sometimes I miss all the meat markets — I miss when Western Beef was on 14th Street.
SK: What was the High Line like back then?
TF: I used to watch the trains go by. There were a lot of meat markets in the area, and I remember the Nabisco factory before Chelsea Market. I remember when the trains used to go through the Northern spur into the building there now. I remember when I was a kid there used to be a meat plant here [in the 14th Street tunnel] and the trucks would be right under it. The squeaking of the trains didn’t bother me — every time I heard squeaking I’d run to the window to see if I could see the trains. The trains used to run all night until 1977, then they started coming in the daytime until 1980 when it was abandoned. I saw the last train from my grandmother’s house on the 11th floor of the Elliott-Chelsea houses. I saw the last locomotive going by, looping around 30th street. It was so beautiful — a black locomotive on a sunny day, in 1980. Then I thought, “I’m never going to see the trains again.”
SK: You knew it was the last train?
TF: I was watching because someone had told me they were going to take the trains off to build the Javits Center. The High Line used to connect to where the Javits Center is now.
[Photo by Rich Nacin, via Flickr]
SK: What did you start to notice when it was abandoned?
TF: I watched the grass growing up here, and then a lot of kids started coming up to tag graffiti in the 1980’s. I used to be curious and wished I could go up to see what was going on up there, but I didn’t want to get caught by the cops or get in trouble with my parents. I used to wonder what was going to happen up there, I thought it would be perfect for people to sit up there and barbecue. With all that grass, it used to look like Pennsylvania, like the country. Then in January of 2001 I read in the New York Times they were going to make it into a park, I was so excited.
SK: What was it like when you first got to come up here?
TF: When I first came up here it was the most exciting day of my life. I remember I saw it on New York 1 and I came to Gansevoort Street and asked one of the employees if I could come up, and they said, “sure, it’s open.” I was so excited to walk through the Chelsea Market tunnel. I came up several times that day. It was so beautiful, it was like a different world.
Earlier: High Line Regular Clifton Crump