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The Fabulous Hudson

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 Stores complex. But there are several monuments on the river itself that will make fantastic perches for shooting the floating museum as it heads north.

Pier 66 with Frying Pan, John J. Harvey, and railroad tracks

Pier 66 with Frying Pan, John J. Harvey, and railroad tracks

First: Pier 66, at 24th Street. Originally built for the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad — later known as the Erie Lackawanna — this float bridge is now home to two historic boats: the John J. Harvey and the Frying Pan. As part of the preservation effort of this Lighterage Era structure the railroad tracks that once connected the barge to the Starrett Lehigh warehouse across today’s West Side Highway are still there, and you can ride a bike across them. You can also grab a beer and burger at the Bar & Grill while you wait for the Lehigh Valley No. 79 to pass by.

69th Street Transfer Bridge with Clearwater Sloop in the background

69th Street Transfer Bridge with Clearwater Sloop in the background

Or: head a bit farther uptown and you’ll find the gorgeous, brooding remains of the 69th Street Transfer Bridge, once used by the New York Central Railroad to transfer railroad cars that had floated across the river from Weehawken, NJ.

For the ideal shot, position yourself on the river’s edge and point your camera so you can capture both the Lehigh Valley No. 79 and the infrastructure of the float bridge as the barge passes by. This way you can get a bit of living history in motion. The day I shot the photo above I was lucky to capture Pete Seeger’s Clearwater Sloop as it tacked across the river just a bit north of the transfer bridge.

Follow @museumbarge on Twitter for updates about the barge’s schedule.

For more information about the lighterage system read this excellent short history that includes reminiscences from the men who captained and worked on the tug barges.

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History Sailing By the High Line

Starrett-Lehigh (center) flanked by two other railroad warehouses: Central Stores (at right) and B&O (at left)

Starrett-Lehigh (center) flanked by two other former railroad warehouses: Terminal and Central Stores (right) and B&O (left)

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 night, and you’ll most likely see a light flashing in one of the eight miles of windows that circles this enormous building. That’s because it’s filled with design, magazine, new media and advertising firms, and many of its offices double as photo studios.

But in 1931 this 2.2 million square foot building served a very different purpose: it was a terminal warehouse for the Lehigh Valley Railroad, built with funds from the Starrett Investment Corporation. It played a vital role in the Lighterage Era, a time before bridges and tunnels enabled food and commercial goods to be swiftly transferred across the Hudson River. The workhorses of that era were the railroad barges, giant floating platforms that could carry as many as a dozen boxcars from terminals in New Jersey to warehouses in Manhattan. Known as “lighters” or car floats, they were a fixture of the Hudson River landscape for decades. In the 1930s, National Geographic reported that as many as 5,000 barges crossed the Hudson every day. Phillip Lopate, in his excellent book Waterfront, observed that “In their heyday, the barges were almost as synonymous with New York’s iconography as its skyscrapers.”

Railroad car floats in New York Harbor. Photo: New York State Archives

Railroad car floats in New York Harbor. Photo: New York State Archives

But not every barge carried actual boxcars; a significant number of vessels in the lighterage system were constructed of wood and ferried “less than carload lots” of perishable goods like coffee, flour, rice, sugar, and spices in their protected spaces. Goods were brought on board by longshoremen at a railroad terminal or were transferred on the water from a ship. These tug-powered barges were the only link between ships and railways, allowing cargo that had traveled across oceans to be offloaded and transferred to a railroad terminal like the one built for the Lehigh Valley Railroad on the Far West Side of Manhattan. Once inside, the goods could be stored, re-packed and re-shipped to their final destination.

In the days before trucks hit the newly built Interstate Highway System and airplanes took to the skies, the lighterage system was a vital part of America’s commercial transportation network. It was how stuff got from one place to another.

Later this month millions of us, from the Hudson River’s southern gateway all the way north past Albany, will have the chance to witness a rare and exciting event as the 101-year old Lehigh Valley No. 79, the only surviving all-wooden unit from the Lighterage Era, makes a 35-hour voyage up the river to a dry dock in Waterford, New York. Visitors on the High Line will have the opportunity to watch a very particular bit of history in action as the barge passes three former railroad warehouses located between 26th – 28th Streets: the Baltimore & Ohio (now the site of Bedrock Mini Storage at 241 11th Avenue); the Starrett-Lehigh and the Terminal & Central Stores complex (home to shops, art galleries, and a furniture company). [Note: click on the first image in this post to enlarge it and see all three.]

The Waterfront Museum. Photo by David Sharps

The Waterfront Museum. Photo by David Sharps

Today the barge is the Waterfront Museum, founded in 1986 and dedicated to promoting an understanding of New York’s maritime history and the ecological importance of the Hudson River estuary. It’s also the home of David Sharps, a former cruise ship entertainer who rescued the barge from the place where it lay grounded in New Jersey, cleared 300 tons of mud that had settled in the hold, and restored it to seaworthy condition. He raised his two daughters on the barge and still lives there at Pier 44 in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

Sometime in the next week the Lehigh Valley No. 79 will depart Red Hook and begin its voyage north. There are countless spots on both sides of the Hudson River, from Brooklyn to Waterford, where you can watch this marvelous historic barge pass by. The actual date will be announced soon, but for now there’s a 7-day window, beginning June 23rd. Follow @museumbarge on Twitter or the official Facebook page for details about timing and location. Folks traveling on the barge will Tweet constant updates so you can position yourself on a bridge, at a park, on a mountaintop, or anywhere along the river to take your photo and share it with the world.

The Lehigh Valley N0. 79 has made only three trips up the Hudson River. This summer’s passage was mandated by the U.S. Coast Guard, which ordered the vessel to be dry-docked and inspected after Hurricane Sandy. Any necessary repairs will be made in Waterford and then the barge will return to its home in Brooklyn. It’s an expensive project, and the Museum is gratefully accepting donations; go here if you’d like to contribute. I just donated $79 in honor of the official number the barge was assigned by the Lehigh Valley Railroad when it rolled off the Perth Amboy Dry Dock in 1914 and assumed its role in the vibrant marriage of river and rail that constituted the Lighterage Era.

For more information about the Waterfront Museum and Lehigh Valley No. 79, visit the official website here, or download the National Register of Historic Registration form [PDF] which includes architectural details about the barge and history of the Lighterage Era.

 

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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 to enlarge it.]

The High Line at the Rail Yards

The High Line at the Rail Yards

Every landscape tells a story, whether its urban, rural, or wilderness, and much of what I’ve been doing on this blog for the past five years is peel back the layers of this particular place to discover the many threads in a rich, ongoing narrative about the Far West Side of our little island. What makes a visit to the final section of the High Line so exciting is that its creators have taken the old story of the abandoned railroad and married it so seamlessly and artfully with the new story of the High Line Park.

A simple change in paving material and a gate that closes at dusk signals the transition between a “wild,” self-seeded garden and a modern park that galvanized an international movement devoted to the adaptive reuse of post-industrial places, powered by new ideas rooted in the concept of greenness and sustainability. The fact that the official opening of the High Line at the Rail Yards coincided with the People’s Climate March made the experience of being here all the more powerful. One could justifiably feel, standing in the “park in the sky” at the spot where the March ended and participants began streaming in, that you were, for just that one fleeting little moment, in the most hopeful place in the world.

It makes it all the more appropriate that a visitor’s first footsteps in the High Line at the Rail Yards pass over a little knuckle in the pavement known as “The Crossroads.” Some day in the future, when the massive Hudson Yards neighborhood is complete, The Crossroads will be the only spot in the park where you could walk in any direction of the compass. But for now, visitors are irresistibly pulled west toward the Hudson River, into a newly designed section that’s remarkable for its sense of openness and natural light.

"Make it sittable." -- William H. Whyte

Make the place sittable, William H. Whyte said

If William “Holly” Whyte were still alive he would be smiling, because in this new area the architects have conceived a whole new vocabulary for the humble act of sitting and hanging out in the city. There’s a “peel-up” bench that see-saws (and gives your calf muscles quite a workout in the process…); love seats that allow couples to engage in conversation while facing each other; a bench that doubles as a xylophone; and long tables where you can quietly work at your laptop, do some urban sketching, or enjoy a picnic with a friend.

Which gets to one of the most striking differences between the newly designed section of the Rail Yards and the rest of the park: there are lots of things to do here. Many visitors love the High Line because it was designed for promenading or just sitting quietly and watching the world go by. In the warmer months you can get a bite to eat, but essentially that’s it. It’s the Slow Park, and that’s always been part of its charm. The Rail Yards is without doubt the most beautiful part of the park, with its expansive Hudson River views and wide, sunlit plazas, and it is indeed a spectacular place for promenading and observing. But there is also much to do here, especially if you’re a kid.

A refurbished signal switch is just above the MTA's working rail yard

A refurbished signal switch is just above the MTA’s working rail yard

The Pershing Square Beams: Just for Kids

Kids now have a place of their own on the High Line, and it’s one of the few spots in New York City where adults are not allowed unless accompanied by a child. This area was created by removing a section of the original steel beams, then covering the remaining ones with a thick layer of silicone. The result is a cool space filled with nooks and crannies for investigation and romping. A periscope offer’s a kids’ eye view of the Rail Yards, and a special tube between beams allows them to have private but amplified conversations across a distance. On opening day I overheard one little boy bellow into the tube: “I love you, mommy.”

One of my young friends leaps in The Beams

One of my young friends leaps in The Beams

Best of all, The Beams allows kids to get right inside the structure of the viaduct itself and see how the whole thing was put together. The engineering seems to intrigue them; one day this week a little girl interrupted her game of leaping from beam-to-beam to exclaim to her mother: “Look, those are rivets!”

Walk the Rails, Watch the Trains

Ever since the High Line opened people have been yearning to walk on the rails. It’s one of the most natural things in the world, like whistling or humming while you work, but it’s not allowed in the park because the tracks cut through garden beds that would be damaged by heavy foot traffic. In the new section, the designers created three “Rail Walks” so visitors can stroll between the tracks or hop on a rail and walk along it. As you move along, balancing on the rails, you can gaze down at real trains as they enter and depart a working rail yard:  the commuter trains of the Long Island Railroad. Having dropped their passengers off at Penn Station a few blocks east, they proceed to the Rail Yards where they park until it’s time to make the return trip.

The Rail Walk

The Rail Walk

See the Past and Future at Once

But what takes your breath away in the new High Line at the Rail Yards is the “wild” section. What makes this such a powerful place is the fact that it has been left alone. I think this section, which wraps around the Western Rail Yards, is one of the most beautiful, inspiring places in all of New York City. An “interim walkway” now cuts through the plants, grasses and trees that spontaneously grew here after the trains stopped running in 1980. The temporary path was born of financial exigency – it was the quickest way open up the entire Rail Yards section, even though funds only existed to formally design part of it – but it offers an experience that is truly priceless. Here is a central part of the High Line’s narrative, an introduction to the real, wild garden that inspired the planting and design scheme throughout the entire park. Everywhere else on the High Line the tracks were taken out for remediation of the rail bed, including the removal of asbestos and lead paint, then replaced along with new plants that came from a nearby nursery. Here, the tracks remain in exactly the same place they were when the trains rumbled along them, surrounded by shrubs and perennials that have grown here, unseen, for decades. All around are breathtaking views: of the busy Hudson River to the west and vast, open stretches of Manhattan to the north, east and south.

In the middle of the wild section is a seating area made of long, wide timbers stacked on top of each other. The genius of this arrangement is that you can turn your back on the city and gaze out at the boat traffic and constantly shifting light along the Hudson River.

East/West facing seating steps

East/West facing seating steps

Or, you can turn your back on the river and watch a whole new city rising around the Hudson Yards, a neighborhood-in-progress that will, when it’s completed some twenty years hence, be twice the size of Rockefeller Center. If you’d like to watch a civilization in the constant act of reinventing itself, there’s no better place than here. All around you are the markers of time: shiny new buildings of the future, crisscrossed by construction cranes and men in hard hats; commuter trains keeping to their schedules, coming and going around the clock; rusty tracks from the old freight railroad, now overgrown with native and exotic plants; children of all ages playing and engaging with the place.

Pete Seeger's sloop Clearwater passes between the Rail Yards and the first section of the Palisades during the People's Climate March

Pete Seeger’s sloop Clearwater passes between the High Line at the Rail Yards and the first section of the Palisades during the People’s Climate March

Time is in the landscape too, beginning with the Hudson River, carved in the last Ice Age some 20,000 years ago and used by us for the past four hundred or so as a primary force of American life, culture, commerce and art. Never content to let the river be, we’ve exerted our force on it in countless ways, and a good place to consider that is on the High Line’s new “Catwalk,” a raised path that crosses 11th Avenue. According to the Welikia Project, which collected massive troves of data on the ecology and topography of Manhattan Island before the Europeans arrived, in 1609 the Hudson River flowed just below today’s Western Rail Yards. (Marty Schnure of Maps for Good used the Welikia-Mannahatta data to create a special map for On the High Line that shows the original 1609 shoreline in relation to the entire park. Click the image of the map below to enlarge it and see the detail.)

The 1609 shoreline and the High Line. Map by Marty Schnure, created for On the High Line

The 1609 shoreline and the High Line. Map by Marty Schnure, created for On the High Line

Centuries of landfill later, we have the the High Line, Chelsea Piers, the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, the West Side Highway, and dozens of old warehouses that are home to art galleries, tech, design and media firms — including the architects of the High Line itself, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, who work in a large studio space in the Starrett-Lehigh Building.

But a look across the river takes us much, much further back in time. On the western bank of the Hudson, just across from the Rail Yards,  you can see the first segment of the Palisades, created at the end of the Triassic Period some 200 million years ago. It’s a place where ancient geology meets classic human folly:  in July 1804, Alexander Hamilton, former Secretary of the Treasury, was shot and killed here by Aaron Burr, then the Vice President of the United States. In fact, this craggy spot in the town of Weehawken was a popular dueling ground; DeWitt Clinton fought a duel here in 1802 and Oliver Hazard Perry fought one in 1818. Today, a railroad runs through it.

Hudson River, Palisades Cliffs, Weekhawken dueling grounds

Hudson River, Palisades Cliffs, Weekhawken dueling grounds

The new section of the High Line offers these and countless other points of contemplation. It’s a gift of extraordinary, timeless value. Every time you visit you will see something new against something old; it’s the ancient dance we do in New York, and there is no more beautiful, inspiring, place to bear witness to it.

The High Line at the Rail Yards, dusk on opening day

The High Line at the Rail Yards, dusk on opening day

The High Line at the Rail Yards, opened September 20, 2014
Plant design: Piet Oudolf
Landscape Architects: James Corner Field Operations
Architects: Diller Scofidio + Renfro
Lighting: L’Observatoire International
More information at TheHighLine.org

 

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The Funny Thing About Landfill

These guys are swimming on land. Or, more precisely, on landfill.

Workers in the Hudson River on 50th Street

Men working in the Hudson River/59th Street

And, on an unseasonably warm December day, they seemed to be enjoying themselves as they went about their business repairing giant piles that help support a roadway that’s shared (and not always so nicely) by joggers, bikers, bladers, pedestrians, baby strollers, cars and giant garbage trucks on West 59th Street. Let me illustrate this spot a bit more clearly:

West 59th Street, courtesy Google Maps

West 59th Street, courtesy Google Maps

I was riding my bike downtown when I stopped to see what was going on.  After being told about the pile repair, I remarked that we humans are re-asserting our claim to this patch of “land” once occupied by the Hudson River. One of the workers replied that the Hudson River was actually the one doing the reclaiming. It was, after all, part of its watery domain before we came along and started filling in the edge of our prosperous island. Have another look at the same spot, courtesy of Oasis, the mapping organization that works in cooperation with the Center for Urban Research at CUNY to provide the richest source of community maps for New York City (as always, click an image to enlarge it):

Manhattan Island with the 1609 shoreline. Courtesy of Oasis & the Mannahatta Project.

Manhattan Island with the 1609 shoreline. Courtesy of Oasis & the Mannahatta Project.

[click to continue…]

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The River That Flows Both Ways

The art exhibit by Spencer Finch, “The River That Flows Both Ways,” is one of my favorite parts of the High Line and today I discovered something I hadn’t noticed before. Again, I thank the camera, which caught something my eyes didn’t see on their own: the reflection of the building just opposite the colored glass windows.

One of the things I love about the High Line is the multitude of windows you see while walking along, everything from cracked, bricked-up windows with bullet-holes on old industrial buildings to the undulating curves of the IAC building. And in the Standard Hotel there’s a “window” cut in the eastern footing of the building that looks onto other windows: Windows on windows. So I shouldn’t have been surprised to see the reflection of yet more windows in Spencer Fitch’s exhibit.

Another thing I admire about “The River That Flows Both Ways” is the fact that every time I photograph it it looks different. Just like the river itself it can’t be nailed down. It keeps changing depending on how the light is falling, where you’re standing, what time of day it is, what season of year, and what the weather is like.  I find the changeableness of this exhibit oddly comforting because it’s so perfectly reliable.

The Algonkins, the people who first settled in New York Harbor, named what we now call the Hudson (after the English sea captain) “the river that flows both ways.” They were stunned when they first saw it, a river with currents that flow north and south at the same time. You can see it yourself; just stand on a pier or lean up against a railing along the Greenway. I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else; it’s just fascinating and confounding.

That’s what Spencer Finch’s exhibit captures: the movement and changing patterns of this great river. You can read about his project here, and see a photo that looks nothing like mine.  I hope the High Line folks make this wonderful exhibit a permanent feature of the park.

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