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On the High Line with Mayor DeBlasio

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.

Behind Chelsea Elliott, closer to 8th Avenue, is the expansive Penn South, a complex built in the 1950s as part of a national effort by the United Housing Foundation to create good, affordable housing at a moderate cost. It was here, one very hot August day in 1999, that Robert Hammond and Joshua David sat next to each other at a community board meeting. On the agenda: tearing down the High Line.

Let’s remember something about New York that we can all be proud of: it is one of the only states in the country with a constitutional mandate to provide for “the aid, care and support of the needy” through public housing. Another neighbor along the High Line is Flemister House on West 22nd Street, a 50-unit affordable housing community dedicated to providing safe housing for low-income, homeless New Yorkers with H.I.V. and AIDS. Look at these places, not at the shiny new buildings that are popping up all around them. This is the community that matters to me; this is its beating heart.

As we stroll south, I will tell the Mayor that for me the High Line is, above all, a place that stands for community. It’s harder than ever to see it through the crowds and the glassy, sinuous facades of our fancy new buildings, but it’s in the DNA of this place. In the long, three-part process of creating the High Line, FHL held dozens and dozens – literally countless – meetings with residents of West

Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen and the Village, many of which took place in the community rooms of the public housing projects. This is because the founders’ original vision was that the High Line would be built for the community – for the people who live around and on both sides of the viaduct. Originally FHL assumed 300,000 people would visit each a year, and they designed programming that would suit people of all ages: film, dance, art, science and horticultural events; Tai Chi, stargazing, lectures, walking tours, storytelling, and more. All these events take place throughout the year; they attract people from around the neighborhood and the other boroughs who still, despite the throngs of tourists, consider this “the people’s park.”

The point, Mr. DeBlasio, is that this place started with the community, and while the park is still young, it already has a legacy that’s rooted in that idea. The High Line has become a beacon to other adaptive reuse projects around the country (and the globe) and Friends of the High Line not only wrote the playbook for how to create projects like this — how to navigate and work with the many stakeholders and interest groups involved — but they recently launched a network that meets throughout the year and has become a kind of global think tank for creative, community-based urbanism. The values that informed the building of this park continue to animate the people who run it, and they are sharing their wisdom, time and resources with the world. When I stroll through the madding crowds of the High Line, this is what I always try to remember.

The composting spur

We have walked south towards 16th Street, and are now standing in the covered area between Chelsea Market and the old Nabisco factory. Ignore those ladies with fancy purses eating Italian ice cream and face west toward a workman-like gate that leads onto a spur once used to transport milk, eggs and butter from the American heartland into the giant maw of Nabisco’s ovens, later to emerge transmogrified into Mallomars, Fig Newtons and Animal crackers: the miracle of the High Line’s Industrial Age.

Today this spur is home to a fully sustainable composting operation that turns millions of cubic yards of plant material into compost for the gardens. It relies on coffee grounds recycled from a café across the street and rainwater captured in giant tanks. Here, at 30’ above street level, you can see the circle of life in action, and the entire process – which I wrote about in detail last spring – was designed by the gardening staff at Friends of the High Line. It’s the latest example of the park’s founding commitment to running a sustainable, green operation, which includes a requirement that vendors provide compostable utensils and packaging for all that food you are see around you.

The idea of sustainability informed every aspect of the High Line’s design, from its horticulture — plants are selected for their ability to adapt to the various microclimates found on the viaduct; they are sourced locally, from growers within a 100-mile radius of lower Manhattan; and they’re irrigated with a specially designed, water-saving drip system — to its architecture, snow removal practices, pest management and the cleaning solutions used in restrooms and other parts of the park.

You can come here for many reasons, including (if you arrive very early in the morning or late in the evening) a moment of solitude in the big city. My first photograph in this post captured such a moment on a bitter cold, winter evening in 2016. It’s not a perfect place, but for those of us who care passionately about diversity in New York, environmental stewardship and respect for community, there is no other place in the city that feels so much like home.

Some day, Mr. deBlasio, you must come and see it.

Kids at an event sponsored by the Chelsea community service organization Hudson Guild

 

 

 

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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…]

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Chelsea Agonistes

The dance of construction around the High Line

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 “What’s That Building?” guide. I’ve updated this feature to include many new buildings that have popped up around the High Line in the past couple of years, and also re-formatted it so the photos are larger. In the process of updating I removed the “glimpses of architecture” we can see in the distance — towers, spires, domes — and created a separate page that identifies them; it too is (roughly) organized from south to north. “What’s That Building?” is the most trafficked piece on the site, so I’m happy to have it back in good shape. Thanks to the readers who wrote and gently nudged me.

Writing about new buildings in my neighborhood is tricky because the presence of so much heavy construction is extremely hard on the nerves. I find myself hitting the delete key more often than usual in an effort to maintain composure and objectivity. There are several large projects on my block alone, and we must endure the noise, dirt, blocked traffic and fumes from idling vehicles all day and also (incredibly) late into the night. Developers in this town have so much power and influence that they are able to routinely get permission to work long hours; in our case, work begins at 7am and continues until 11pm, six days a week. And we are lucky; the developer (Albanese in partnership with Vornado) has been extremely responsive to complaints and requests from residents, and the crews are polite and highly focused on worker and pedestrian safety. But there’s only so much they can do. Modern construction requires gigantic machines, sky-piercing cranes, massive flatbed trucks, endless parades of cement mixers, and brutally intrusive, never-extinguished LED klieg lights that cast a creepy, bone-white glow in bedrooms across the street and down the block.

It can feel sometimes that no one cares about the actual people who live on these blocks that are being re-made all over the city. My downstairs neighbor has a small child whose bedroom window looks out on the construction project. Who cares about the late-night disruption to a toddler? Does the Mayor? The Buildings Dept.? The developer? The truck driver? Probably not; their interests are to make the city (and their pocketbooks) hum, one way or another. And so the rest of us suffer through it, doing our best to be good citizens who somehow see, and celebrate, the benefits of all this “progress.” It would be so much easier to accept if at least half of all this new construction were devoted to affordable housing. We would still suffer the long, ugly barrage of construction, but at least, at the end of it, our neighborhoods would retain the diversity that drew most of us here in the first place. But that is a subject for another post. [click to continue…]

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Mammals of West Chelsea

 

Friends of the High Line gardeners demonstrate clipper technique

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.” We also, Pat mentioned, lack large herbivores – buffalo, for example – who would munch the tops of the grasses and other native plants. And so instead we have an army of smaller mammals: the volunteers of the High Line, who gather every year for this ritual of cleansing and renewal. [Click a photo to enlarge it.]

During training this morning, a group of volunteers talked about the social bonds they’ve cultivated over the now eight years of Cutback. It’s my favorite time of year too, when people of all ages, backgrounds, and parts of New York City come together in usually cold, sometimes downright harrowing weather, and work side-by-side in the gardens with large, sharp tools. For a few hours we clip, trim, slice, clear, sweep. We also talk, share stories and information, answer questions from tourists, and learn about horticulture from the amazingly knowledgeable garden staff.
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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 railroad came to West 22nd Street, and it’s worth stepping off the High Line to see it in person.

Silas-Plaque

Historic bridge plaque from the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway

This plaque, which now graces the exterior wall of sculptor Silas Seandel’s studio at 551 W. 22nd Street, traveled across the ocean from England, where it once adorned the side of a railway bridge. According to the National Railway Museum in York, the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway (LB & SCR) existed from 1845 – 1922, operating services from London to the south coast of England. The Museum was unable to confirm which bridge Silas’ plaque came from, but since the main bridges of the LB & SCR spanned the River Thames in London, they speculate his may have come from one of those bridges. Railways in England only used plaques like these on important bridges, so they are rare. Particularly in America.

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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 →

History Sailing By the High Line

One of the great monuments in view of the High Line is the Starrett-Lehigh Building, a behemoth that straddles the superblock between 26th and 27th Streets on Eleventh Avenue. Look at it for more than a minute anytime, day or […] Read the full article →

High Line Architecture: The Whitney Museum

When architect Renzo Piano speaks about the Whitney Museum of American Art he uses his entire body to illustrate the artistic intent of his new building. During the museum’s official dedication ceremony he gestured first to the east, and a […] Read the full article →

Into the Wild

For Johnny. The genius of the High Line at the Rail Yards is that it’s two different places at once, yet each part perfectly captures the essence of this now mile-and-a-half long, exquisitely beautiful park. [As always, click an image […] Read the full article →