Issue #11, Winter 2009
Bodies and Structures:
The High Line.
WHEN YOU’VE BEEN IN NEW YORK long enough, the city tends to become a constant of police sirens and spray paint and flimsy umbrellas and weird smells and men hawking coupons and taxi cabs that drive too fast and pedestrians that walk too slow and errant pieces of bubble gum that get stuck to your shoes. The city spends its weeks in offices, returns to its too small apartments at night, and then clogs its highways on weekends, just to get out, for a tree, a lawn, a bit of space and fresh air. For this and other reasons, New York has become divinely sensitive to its landscapes and monuments – sometimes, even when the objects in question aren’t monuments to begin with. Talk about realigning an old fountain, and you’ve got citizen-led action committees handing out petitions, holding protests and chaining themselves to park benches. Such were my initial thoughts when I first heard about the High Line, a string of abandoned railway stretching through the city’s west that, over the past several years, has been turned into a park.
When it was first built in the 1930s, the High Line – a series of platforms that raised the dangerous freight trains coming into the Meatpacking District 30 feet above the street – was an urban necessity. But with the rise of interstate trucking, the High Line fell into disuse; the last train ran on its tracks some 30 years ago, and a two decade long battle ensued between those who wanted to see the High Line demolished and those who wanted it turned into something else. But what else? What to do with a 23-block stretch of railroad tracks, cutting through buildings and abandoned warehouses, overgrown with rusted metal and shrub brush, only accessible to intrepid graffiti artists? And so, for many years, the tracks lay fallow.
Then, in 1999, Joshua David and Robert Hammond (a writer and a painter, respectively) met at a community meeting, where the order of business was to discuss what to do with the abandoned system of rails. While the rest of the people saw the High Line as an eyesore or a mechanism for property devaluation, David and Hammond saw an opportunity, and founded the Friends of the Highline, its stated goal being to turn the defunct railway platform into a public park.
My interest in the High Line lies in the fact that it’s the latest addition to the city’s ongoing narrative with its outdoor spaces, one that spans the better part of two centuries, and, in almost every case, reads like a cross between “Waiting for Godot” and Clash of the Titans. By the mid 19th Century, most of New York’s half-million residents were crowded into the teeming alleyways below 38th Street. At that time, there was the privately held Gramercy Park, (which, to this day, is only accessible to those living in the townhouses surrounding its padlocked and very tall wrought-iron gates), and there was Washington Square Park, a paved over potter’s field for victims of the Yellow Fever. Those who wanted to escape the hustle and bustle of city life would visit cemeteries in the suburbs. And then came along the most famous of our city’s open spaces, Central Park, built by the father of American landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmstead.
A journalist and social activist, Olmstead viewed the project – in actuality, an 1857 design contest – as an exercise in social egalitarianism. Based on his observations during trips to Europe in the early 1850s, Olmstead would bring the pleasures of Arcadia to the masses, giving them access to the “specimen of God’s handiwork,” though the public, as Olmstead put it, would need to learn how to use his gift. But Olmstead, who had never built a park before, didn’t quite understand the ramifications of planting an 843 acre chunk of forest in the middle of a city, and an American one at that; his lofty goals arguably backfired on almost every level. As soon as it opened, Olmstead’s ‘masses’ came to mean those with enough free time, horse-drawn carriages, and servants to get them to and from the park.
For many years, there was the phrase ‘Central Park views’ and its synergistic effect on Manhattan real estate listings, the Central Park as seen from the very high windows of Fifth Avenue, and the Central Park of movies and postcards. But Central Park itself was a no-man’s-land where daring few went for strolls, only to have their purses stolen (In the 1930s, the sheep were removed from Sheep Meadow for fear that impoverished New Yorkers would eat them). Nowadays, you can’t really say anything against Central Park itself. It’s too old and too big; too many Woody Allen films have been shot in or around it.
Cynic that I am, I’m thinking of Olmstead’s failed mission when I pass behind a billboard and ascend the many flights of iron grey staircase leading up to the High Line, and I’m not sure what to expect when all at once I’m standing up on a long wooden platform, surrounded at both sides by the very objects I’m trying to escape. Except that these aren’t the same objects. They’re framed, as though through an expansive panoramic window.
I start down the path. Wild brush and sages peak through the walkway’s ridged concrete divides, giving the odd sensation that I’m strolling on a distant beach, but realize that I never lose site of the buildings, of the broken glass windows or air conditioner grates, the things that surround me back on the ground.
Every now and then, benches slope up out of the concrete, a continuum of rusted train tracks to cement to wood. I consider for a moment the flora that surrounds me – aromatic asters and blue giant hyssops, prairie blazing stars and azure blue sage, Ohio goldenrod and Ohio spiderwort – all listed on the High Line’s website in a way that would have made Nabakov proud. These plants – inspired by those that were up here during the High Line’s abandonment – have an undulating rhythm to them, as though they’d been carried up here by birds and by breezes, sprouting wherever they may land.
I turn a corner and there’s an amphitheater. Though it’s cold and late, there are still quite a few people sitting on the wood slat benches, in their coats and scarves, talking, snapping pictures, pondering. A few more steps, and I see the object of their meditation. It’s a window, looking down onto the traffic of 10th Avenue.
I pass by an old diamond junction, where a cloud of purple-stern aster rises from the gravel. The trees thicken one last time near the Gansevoort exit – the buffer stop to the High Line. As I descend, and the cobblestones below start to take hold, I begin to understand. The High Line doesn’t try to furnish Olmstead’s escape from our world, or attempt to hide the base streets around it. Rather, the High Line does something infinitely better – providing a wooded corridor of art, a transformative intersection into our citified world. Simply by standing on it, our vistas change, our site-lines readjust. In a city where few things work, where so much falls into disrepair, I realized then, on that cold autumn day, that I have stood amidst a thing of beauty.
Source: HOUSE Magazine.