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Rocket Men

High Line Innovators: Nathan Bartholomew & Kaspar Wittlinger

Today is opening day of Spring Cutback on the High Line, the ninth since the park opened in 2009. Visitors marvel at the annual ritual: teams of volunteers from all over city working in shifts through the month of March to cut back the stalks, sticks and branches that dazzled us in a multitude of colors as the seasonal wheel turned through spring, summer, fall and winter. The Cutback is an existential part of the High Line, the result of its design philosophy. Most gardens are clipped and pruned at the onset of Fall when cold weather arrives, but here on the High Line they are left alone to complete the full cycle of their lives. Piet Oudolf, the horticultural artist who created these gardens, believes that plants are interesting and beautiful throughout all the stages of their life, from the soft, bright colors of springtime youth to the dark, spiky textures of a wintry old age.  “Dying in an interesting way is just as important as living,” he once said. That’s why every new walk on the High Line is different from the last one. The gardens manifest a constantly changing, vibrantly living — and then, when the time comes, dying — landscape.

Over the years the gardeners have worked to develop a composting system that would fulfill Friends of the High Line’s founding goal of sustainability in every aspect of its operations, from food service to snow removal. They started with a small household wood chipper and gradually evolved into the sophisticated operation I unpacked in a post called “Composting at 30′” last year. In the old days, a couple of gardeners drove a panel truck to Staten Island every week to dump the clippings at the Fresh Kills landfill. The new composting system made that long, expensive, carbon-emitting journey unnecessary. Now they do everything on-site, with a major assist from a neighbor across the block: Intelligentsia at the High Line Hotel, which provides almost 300 pounds of coffee grounds (plus leaves from the odd cup of tea) each week.

Since my last post the gardeners haven’t stopped innovating: in June they acquired an enormous, state-of-the-art, Rocket A900 composter from Tidy Planet, a UK-based company whose machines are in use around the world and allow landscapers, hotels, universities, and office buildings to do safe, sustainable, on-site composting.

Nathan Bartholomew and Kaspar Wittlinger showed me the new Rocket system a few weeks ago, and shared the recipe they’ve been refining for High Line Compost: 24 liters of coffee grounds plus 24 liters of saturated wood chips. It’s measured in the same large garden trugs we volunteers use during the Cutback (see here) and then dumped into the maw of the machine.

The Rocket A900

The 500-gallon A900 has four zones and a system of steel paddles inside the giant tank that turns the biomass — all those clippings from the High Line and coffee grounds from Intelligentsia — and moves it through the successive zones of the tank at temperatures ranging from 80 – 190 degrees Fahrenheit, until it’s fully cooked and ready to return to the garden in a new form: rich, nutritional, home-made compost. The beauty of The Rocket is that it self-regulates. The gardeners can fill the tank at one end on a Friday afternoon and when they return to work on Monday morning a 13-gallon bag of fresh compost is waiting at the other end.

The Rocket is a high-tech partner for the gardening staff. “The key advantage,” Nathan explains, “is that we can collect data from the internal sensors and, theoretically, produce a higher quality compost. The temperature is recorded in four different zones inside the machine and we graph out this data to see what’s going on inside the vessel. It’s like having a window into an oven; we can actually watch the compost bake.” Another advantage: the machine cuts down on labor because, unlike a typical compost pile, it doesn’t have to be turned by hand. The gardeners can therefore spend more time in the field. The Rocket is still new and the staff is in the early stages of data collecting and recipe tweaking, but the benefits are clear.

The best part of my tour was standing on a little stepladder, dropping my arm into the tank and palming a moist, soft handful of soon-to-be compost that smelled like a fine cup of espresso.

Kaspar and Nathan refer to Ingelligentsia’s contribution as “rocket fuel” because during the winter months, when the dying plants have less nitrogen than they do in spring or summer, it’s the moist coffee grounds that enables the composting process. Oudolf’s design generates an unusually high volume of low-nitrogen, winter biomass, and so the regular flow of fresh grounds to the composting area on the Chelsea Market Spur is key to the whole process.

Friends of the High Line’s goal is to generate enough home-made compost for the entire, mile-and-a-half long park, thereby eliminating the need to import fertilizer, a product that must be delivered by trucks powered by fossil fuel. They continue to recycle captured rainwater and the Rocket has a closed-loop system that sequesters moisture and returns it in the form of mist, as seen in the video. Beyond that, the gardeners would love to get to place where the High Line could donate excess compost to community gardens around the city.

So this month, as you walk up and down the High Line, consider the mathematics of the Cutback. Twenty volunteers per shift generate around 10 large bags of biomass. After a few days in the Rocket, the yield is thirteen, 30-gallon bags of compost. If you’re a volunteer you can take satisfaction in the fact that all those hours you spent clipping one day in March are coming back to the gardens of the High Line once again in the form of fresh compost: the rich, healthy byproduct of a carefully designed – and spectacularly beautiful – ecosystem.



Song of the Urban Cowboy

Hey, the past is past, so gather ’round boys. Let’s all raise a glass to last of the West Side Cowboys….

George Hayde, New York’s  last urban cowboy, finally has his own song, and it’s rockin’ great. Put that drink down before you click the link because it’s gonna topple with the first chord.

Dave Goddess, who lives on Tenth Avenue, was inspired to write the song after he learned about the 1850s ordinance requiring a man on horseback to precede and follow every train as it made its way up and down the city streets. One day a few friends who were visiting from Denmark insisted he join them on a tour of the High Line. When “the guide told the story I was floored. It’s both surreal and poetic. I tried to imagine the seedy Meatpacking District of 80 years ago with its tenements, prostitutes, and hundreds of slaughterhouses. I invented a backstory about George Hayde and wrote the tune about his last ride. When I was finished I realized that my song was just as much about obsolescence. What does a workingman do when his job goes away because times are changing? It’s a scenario we’re still dealing with today.”

The Dave Goddess Group  — Mark Buschi on bass, Tom Brobst on keys and sax, Chris Cummings on drums and Gary Gipson on guitar — just released its new EP. There’s a good interview here about how they work together and Dave’s philosophy of music-making. I didn’t know this band but I’m a new and ardent fan.

And for those looking for more about the West Side Cowboy, this is the link to my tiny documentary made from rare 1930s footage of an actual train — and cowboy — steaming up Tenth Avenue. This link goes to the full story of George Hayde’s final ride. And this one is my own story of first learning about New York’s cowboy from my brother-in-law’s grandfather, Steven Hirsch, who chased trains as a boy and never forgot about it.



The Secret Dogs of the High Line

I know from this blog’s analytics that a great many people come here looking for dogs on the High Line, and I’m always happy to oblige. Dogs, of course, are not allowed on the High Line, but the one pictured above is a service dog who lives in the neighborhood. I often see this couple at the Chelsea Piers gym and the dog is a very sweet, well-behaved creature who sits quietly and attentively by the swimming pool as her owner swims. (I’m sure the owner is very sweet too, but that’s beside the point; no one comes here searching for “humans on the High Line.”) This is one of Manhattan’s Lucky Dogs; being in service means she has the great privilege of being allowed on the High Line. So if you see this dog you too will be lucky. That’s what dogs do: they spread the luck around. This is why, over the years, I’ve made it a habit to photograph every dog I see the High Line.

I think we could all use a bit of doggy luck these days, so here they are: large ones and small ones, night dogs and day dogs, legal dogs and rule-breakers, making their way through snow and rain and heat and gloom, brought together in one single post for the first time ever. It is without doubt — and I say this in all modesty — the World’s Leading Collection of Dog Photographs on the High Line. That and a subway token, as they say….

Enjoy. But don’t use this as an excuse to bring your dog to the High Line. Dogs are not allowed on the High Line, except those in service.

Who let the dogs in? Woof.

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On the High Line with Mayor DeBlasio

[NOTE: 14 days after this post appeared, Mayor DeBlasio did indeed visit the High Line]

Since becoming Mayor of New York Bill DeBlasio has avoided the High Line, and perhaps with good reason. Almost from the moment it opened, the runaway success of Manhattan’s “park in the sky” vaulted it from an innovative, drop-dead gorgeous park into a platform for development by billionaires and “starchitects.” It never fit with DeBlasio’s message about the Other America, so he just stayed away, always promising to visit some day in the future.

The other day I was walking north through the Chelsea Grasslands and a Monarch butterfly flew across my path. It arced east for a moment toward 20th Street, then circled back and disappeared into a cluster of Rudbeckia: orange wings merging with yellow and black flowers, a colorful late morning pollination. It made me think of Mayor DeBlasio, and all that he’s missing out on. The butterfly made me wonder what sort of tour would I take the Mayor on, if and when he decides to pay a visit to the High Line.

Over the past few decades the Monarch has been under tremendous pressure from loss of habitat, climate change, chemicals and pesticides that are sprayed on fields and lawns all over the country, destroying its natural food source. This gorgeous species almost disappeared entirely, and the fact that today you can spot a Monarch on any random walk along the High Line is more than good news: it’s a metaphor for the sanctuary city. This place, basically one long, gigantic green roof filled with a mix of native and exotic plant species, created a safe landing spot for the Monarch and many other creatures: birds, insects, small mammals and the odd human.  The butterfly I saw was a tri-color reminder of the values that inform every aspect of the High Line and have done, from the very moment of its conception. Nowadays, more than ever since the park opened in 2009, we need to remember those values. Actually, we need to trumpet them from the rooftops.

I won’t sugar coat it: the High Line is too crowded, development is overwhelming the neighborhood, there are too many super-rich families, locals yield to hoards of tourists, the air is filled with fumes from idling construction vehicles, it’s sometimes noisy and claustrophobic. But the founding dream of the High Line lives on, accessible to anyone taking a stroll through the park.

If I were walking along the High Line with Mr. DeBlasio I’d focus on the values and ideas of this place, rather than its celebrity and iconic status. As we as we huffed up the stairs to the park I’d tell him about that Monarch butterfly, and when we got to the top, I’d direct his attention to the east.

the Elliott-Chelsea Houses

We’re not going to begin at the beginning, Mr. Mayor; we’re going to start in the middle, at 26th Street.

Let’s not gaze north at the elegant spires of the Empire State Building, New York Times headquarters, Condé Nast or Bank of America towers – they are beautiful, sure, but also familiar. We know what they stand for. Let’s look instead straight ahead, at the Elliott-Chelsea Houses. This complex is one of two large public housing projects in the High Line’s ‘hood and, along with the Fulton Houses a few blocks to the south, it plays a vital role in the park. That’s because this place was created for the local community, and Friends of the High Line (FHL), the founding organization that still runs the park, continues to devote a huge amount of energy and resources into developing programs for our neighbors in these apartments. They even invited kids from the projects to create their own social programs, and have developed employment and training opportunities as well. [click to continue…]

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Drone’s Eye View

An old friend recently wrote a piece on her blog about the place she goes when she wakes up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep: childhood books. Whether it’s Anne of Green Gables, The Borrowers, Pippi, Harriet, Reepicheep, Lad a Dog, Lightfoot the Deer or Whitefoot the Woodmouse, this retreat into a long ago chapter is an engine of escape, the tool that can finally quiet a restless, adult mind.

I was thinking of Beka’s piece when I opened up the new book Dronescapes and found this image of the place where I go in those quiet hours when I can’t, for whatever reason, sleep:

Romeo Durscher. © 2017 The Photographers of Dronestagram

It’s Keyhole Arch at Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur, shot using a drone by Romeo Durscher. It was taken during the Winter Solstice when the sun cuts a particular angle and shines through what looks like a carved doorway in the giant rock just off the shoreline. I’ve photographed this magical spot hundreds of times over the past 20 years, but never during the Solistice. Durscher’s photo has a shamanistic, almost mystical quality, since it captures the figures on the beach in the waning rays of sun as well as the shadows outside them. Is it possible to get such a photo without a drone? Yes, you can clamber up a steep, sandy hill and hope for the best. But there’s something about a drone…

These days, as Dronescapes shows, the size of cameras has shrunk while chip capacity has grown, and suddenly, in the past couple of years, a new form of aerial photography is emerging. But in a weird twist, increased government regulation of drones means that the possibilities are increasing and contracting at the same time. It’s both an exciting and frustrating moment, because the technology is there and prices have come down drastically, but those shots you want to get — of bridges, monuments, cityscapes — are increasingly off limits. Dronescapes is the first coffee table book to give us a look at the state of the art.

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Composting at 30′

The composting operation on the High Line

Five years ago I tagged along with a High Line gardener on what was then a weekly trip to Staten Island, where the fruits of our Cutback labor were dumped on a giant composting pile in the Fresh Kills landfill. Fresh Kills is a stunningly beautiful place, but the long, bumper-to-bumper, carbon-emitting drive in a panel truck packed with 35-cubic-yard compost bags was not exactly a sustainable operation.  The article I published in 2012 was called “The Choreography of the Cutback.”

Wow, have things changed. Today, Friends of the High Line’s horticultural staff remains on Manhattan island and has created an innovative, state-of-the art composting operation in a small but wonderfully efficient area just above the busy traffic of Tenth Avenue. It’s located on a Spur that once served the New York Central Railroad and the National Biscuit Company, also known as Nabisco. Back in the day, boxcars filled with eggs, milk and butter from the American heartland trundled across this Spur and all those raw ingredients made their way into giant ovens that later cranked out Mallomars, Fig Newtons and Animal Crackers. Today, the Spur is home to a fully sustainable composting operation that runs throughout the year, but just under half its output — between 180 – 220 cubic yards — is generated in March, during the annual Spring Cutback. It’s the horticultural circle of life in action, and I had the great pleasure of witnessing the new era of composting on the High Line just five days after participating in the first Cutback shift of 2017.

This is the story of how the High Line’s plants and grasses go from the volunteer’s trug to a beautiful, aromatic compost, ready to return to the garden and nurture the next generation of growth. [click to continue…]


Chelsea Agonistes

Derailed by the death of my mother and a few work projects, I took my eye off this blog for awhile, and have only now begun the process of revising a few pieces that fell out of date. First: the […] Read the full article →

Mammals of West Chelsea

  This morning during Spring Cutback training, longtime High Line volunteer Pat Jonas explained the reason for the annual ritual in the “park in the sky.” It’s because “in this prairie we don’t have wildfires to naturally manage the landscape.” […] Read the full article →

Look Out High Line — Another Railroad Just Came to Town

When people in West Chelsea think about railroads these days they usually think about the High Line, that famous “park in the sky” built atop the New York Central Railroad’s old freight viaduct. But last summer an artifact of another […] Read the full article →

Remembering the Last Urban Cowboy & His Final Ride

Seventy-five years ago tomorrow, the world’s attention was focused on events overseas. The Nazis had just bombed an English port, and the Axis powers were gaining momentum. On the front page of the New York Times Sunday edition for March […] Read the full article →

Lehigh Valley No. 79: The Aerial Shot

Yesterday I posted two ideas for shooting the Lehigh Valley No. 79 as it sails north on the Hudson River later this week to a Coast Guard-mandated drydock inspection in Waterford, NY. [Follow @museumbarge on Twitter for schedule details.] Here’s […] Read the full article →

How to Photograph Some Living History on the Hudson River

Yesterday’s post about the upcoming Hudson River voyage of the Lehigh Valley No. 79 focused on the three former terminal warehouses in view of the High Line: the Baltimore & Ohio’s; the Starrett Lehigh building; and the Terminal and Central […] Read the full article →