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The Glorious City

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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Welcome to the Time Machine

General Theological Seminary

General Theological Seminary

The blast of winter early this week was the most beautiful of the year. The snow was dense and heavy, and unlike the powder of recent storms, it hung around for a few days. It attached itself to everything, even the stone cross on the roof of the Guardian Angel Church. Blanketing entire trees — trunks, branches, twigs — it had a wonderful effect of erasure: you could barely see the buildings or skyline through the thick lines of white that crisscrossed every view from the street. And unlike our many previous storms, this stuff stayed white much longer than the typical New York City snowfall. In a hellacious winter, this was our magical moment.

GTS_DSC07513

[As always, click to enlarge an image.]

Walking past General Theological Seminary on Monday night you could almost imagine it was the 1820s. In a flicker of gaslight, perhaps that dark figure who just brushed past you was Clement Clark Moore himself, father of Chelsea who long ago donated his apple field to the Episcopal Church.

I crossed over Tenth Avenue — the Hudson River’s eastern edge in Moore’s day, now a slushy artery built on landfill — and up above me appeared a winter forest. Somewhere along that elevated expanse a High Line Ranger was gingerly walking along the path, making his final rounds to close up the park. [click to continue…]

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The Quiet Park

I have left town for a week — my first vacation of the year, and much-needed — and find myself in my own garden pulling weeds. It’s very quiet here on a small mountain along the Hudson River in Columbia County. Frequently a train goes by and toots its horn. If it’s a big one — a long CSX freight train — I can even feel it rumbling through the house. “The rhythm of the rails,” as Steve Goodman wrote in “City of New Orleans.” Cue Arlo Guthrie.

As I was weeding this morning, before a thunder storm rolled in, I was thinking about that other rail bed down south, and it occurred to me that one of the most striking features of the High Line is how quiet it is. For the two years that Section Two was under construction we worried about the noise that would come from thousands of people passing by our windows.  I heard that around 35,000 walked through the park during the Gay Pride weekend.

But it’s completely, astonishingly, quiet down there.

There’s something about the High Line that not only slows people down but quiets them too. In two years I’ve never heard anyone screaming into a cellphone. Today, people who sit on the lawn seem to speak in whispers; there are buildings all around us to amplify the sound but I’ve not yet overheard a single conversation. No radios or boom boxes. Occasionally a small child shrieks in joy but that’s always a welcome interruption.

Of course it wasn’t this way when the trains were running. In 2003 a woman named Patricia Fieldsteel described in The Villager what it was like when she moved into an apartment near Gansevoort Street.

“Slightly before 2:50 a.m. the building began to quiver and shake: an unearthly shrill series of screeches, wheezings and the rattlings of Brobdingnagian chains seemed headed straight for the window by my bed. I groped for my glasses and peered out between the dusty slats of the Venetian blinds. A decrepit freight train was creeping out of the south side of the Manhattan Meat & Refrigeration Warehouse across the street. Huge refrigerated trucks were parked along Washington St., their motors running, spewing noxious fumes that were already seeping through my closed windows. Then the raw steer carcasses started to roll and the odor of blood and hacked-apart flesh mixed with the other charming aromas. The High Line was making its deliveries….”

The High Line is more connected to the city itself than any other park in New York, running as it does right through the middle of busy streets and up along the avenue. And yet it’s so startlingly quiet. It’s possible that this is the effect that great and beautiful design has on us. It’s humbling to walk through such a lovely place, particularly when you’re surrounded by reminders of a complex society, both industrial and technological, on both sides and at every step along the way. It’s a place that allows you to slow down and think.

I’m glad that the people who run the park are closing it early on days when there are massive crowds downtown. Whatever the reason, the effect is that it preserves this idea of the High Line as a place apart. It’s not a spot for partying and ballyhoo — there are tons of great places to go for that.  It’s the quiet park, and somehow — at least so far — the millions of people who pass through it every year seem to appreciate that.

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It Tolls For Thee…

 

Sad news that Stephen Vitiello’s marvelous exhibit, “A Bell For Every Minute,” will close later this Spring. The folks who run the High Line have a robust program of art exhibits and they’ve created a one-year rule for themselves to keep the programs fresh and new. That makes (some) sense, but it’ll be hard to say goodbye to the Bells.

The exhibit has occupied the 14th Street Passage since June of last year, and it was one of the High Line’s original art projects. “A Bell For Every Minute” is a sort of audio map of New York City. Every minute, on the minute, a different bell from around town rings, from the familiar opening bell of the New York Stock Exchange to the 500 pound bell that welcomed visitors to the Dreamland Pier in Coney Island until it was lost in a fire in 1911. Divers retrieved it from the ocean floor in 2009 and Vitiello recorded it for his exhibit. There’s also a little girl’s bicycle bell, which I always love to hear.

The site of the exhibit – a bleak concrete tunnel – reminded the curator, Meredith Johnson, of a bell tower. While the enclosed space makes a perfect “auditorium” for the multitude of bells, it’s also an open space with all the day-to-day noises of the busy city that surrounds it. Every hour on the hour all fifty-nine bells ring at once.

I emailed Stephen Vitiello to ask if he’s planning to create an online home for “A Bell For Every Minute” and he’s not. The length of the piece plus the fact that it’s so site-specific make it very challenging, if impossible, to reproduce with integrity on the web. He passed along a link to a French website, Palais de Tokyo, where you can listen to a podcast of his “Bell Study,” which Vitiello describes as “a very quiet, processed bell piece that plays in between the louder hits each minute.” So once the exhibit closes this, alas, is all that will be left of “A Bell For Every Minute.”

For me this exhibit has become an integral part of the High Line. Every time I visit I hear a different series of bells, and of course every trip is a new experience because the ambient noises from the city — car horns blasting, kids screeching in joy, cruise ships bellowing, dogs barking, motorcycles roaring, cellphones ringing, rain falling, pneumatic drills howling — constantly reinvent the soundscape. Every minute, in fact.

So make sure you visit before June so you can get those bells in your ears at least once more before they go away.

And if this exhibit causes you to become interested in Vitiello’s work, as it did for me, you can find his website here and a very cool gallery of his audio works here, at “SoundCloud.”

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Farewell Pier D

Driving down the West Side Highway last Sunday we met with a sad surprise as we approached 64th Street: Pier D was in the process of being dismantled. It was an icy day and several boats and a large crane were at work taking apart the old wreck. The Times ran a story with a photo on Tuesday and I managed to get uptown on Thursday to catch a few glimpses of the very end of the process. There were several tugboats and even a skiff carrying two men. It was so cold I could barely click the shutter; one can only imagine what it was like for those guys, hour after hour, clanking around old pieces of iron on a tugboat in the Hudson River.

This blog is devoted to the High Line, which begins a mile and half south of Pier D, but last May I ventured north to pay tribute to the architects and designers who so beautifully incorporated the dilapidated vocabulary of the rusting piers and remnants of the old shipping industry into the renovation of the waterfront parks. That post is here, along with photos of Pier D. The City says that the old pier was dangerous and posed a hazard to boats on the River today, so it had to go. Here it is back in May:


And here it is today. We can remember it fondly, and again thank the folks who had such vision for the City’s waterfront as they reconceived it for a 20th century visitor. Farewell old friend.

 

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Hipstamatic High Line

My new friend Scott Mlyn, a photographer and writer, introduced me to the Hipstamatic photo app for the iPhone and I downloaded it last week — a full 3 days before the New York Times gave it the nod as one of the “Top Ten Must-Have Apps.”

So here we have Hipstamtic High Line: a shot taken last evening (Scott says dusk is the best time to shoot using this app) of men planting trees on our section of the High Line. Yesterday morning it was a giant sandbox — there was a full bed of sand covering the whole section — but gradually, throughout the day, the men brought in a nice, loamy, topsoil.  And now they’re there with shovels planting, tamping, hoeing. It’s too bad they have to wear those hard hats (the rat building is too close for comfort, apparently) but it’s good reminder that the ever-evolving High Line sits in the middle of the ever-evolving City.
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Sunset O’er the High Line


A quiet Sunday evening. No workers, no rat, no pounding and banging, clanging and tooting. Just a glow on the London Towers. All is well.

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The long weeks with no (apparent) progress on my section of the High Line have caused my eye to wander, and lately I’ve been admiring the majestic water towers on the roof of the London Terrace Towers apartments across the street from my apartment. (That’s 23rd Street, just off 10th Avenue.) I’m reminded of how these buildings were completed in 1929, during another severe economic meltdown. A real estate broker once told me that the builder committed suicide before the complex had been finished, but I can’t verify that. I do love how the architect conceived the housing for his water towers. See those brick silos on the roof that enclose them as though they were bell towers.

Fans of Charles Kuralt will remember his fondness for the old water towers that grace so many of New York’s buildings. To him they were American heirlooms, and to give them their props he did a piece about Wallace Rosenwach, the master cooper whose family has been hand-crafting the barrels since 1896, when Rosenwach’s grandfather paid $55 to buy the business from the widow of the man he worked for.

Kuralt’s book American Moments explains that every building in Manhattan that’s seven stories or more must have a large water barrel on its roof, raised up on stilts, that will supply the sprinkler system with enough water during a fire “to dampen whatever is burning while the firefighters are still on their way.”  So pick a block, any block, and all you have to do is look up. There you will find “the hoops and staves of the Middle Ages” right there in the middle of our booming metropolis.

As Kuralt wrote: “In other places you have to dig down to find the past. In New York City to find the past you have to go up. New York City is an odd place.”

Needless to say Kuralt would have loved the High Line. I thought of him recently as I was walking north near what I call “the paper clip building” on 14th Street, just a bit west of the Apple Store; the steel beams of this rising tower are so skimpy they look they come out of a Staples carton. I happened to look up and noticed a bright, oak, barrel sitting on the roof of the half-finished building. To this day the City continues to rely on the power of gravity to buy a bit of extra time for the firefighters. I’ll grab a photo of that brand new water tower as soon as I can.

Meantime, here is Kuralt’s.

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Watching and studying a great public space in progress has made me think a lot about the decisions that designers and architects make as they create the places that we will all inhabit and enjoy.

Every weekend I drive down the West Side Highway on my way home from upstate, and it’s hard not to notice (because we’re almost always stuck in traffic) the new park that snakes its way up the bank of the Hudson River in the 60s.

What you see very dramatically from the highway (and a bit less so from the walkway inside the park) is the way the ancient river structures have been echoed in the modern architecture. (Okay, “ancient” is a bit over-the-top, since these structures aren’t much more than 100 years old, but in the age of Twitter I’m going to let it stand, just this once.)

Look at the twisted wreck of Pier D….

This pier was originally built of wood in the 1880s and was angled in a particular way to enable rail cars to roll down and unload cargo from ships. It was destroyed by a fire in 1922, rebuilt with steel and then finally destroyed for good — by another fire — in 1971.

The designer who planned this section of the park along the West Side Highway (it’s at around 64th Street) paid wonderful homage to Pier D and the longshoreman who worked it by creating the benches you see here…


It’s just a suggestion, nothing heavy-handed, but it connects a passerby to the old days when this pier was a vital commercial link, providing a way for grain, milk, vegetables, and other supplies to reach the city.  (Not unlike the High Line, by the way; follow some of the links in my blogroll to learn more about the history and purpose of the original railroad.)

Even the small, incidental seats that line a cement wall and are clearly intended for unceremonious sitting — tying your shoe, tightening the straps on your roller blades, enjoying a quick smoke — echo the twisted wreck of Pier D.

There’s a story in the Times about how Adrian Benepe, the parks commissioner in 2003, had to race down to the waterfront to stop a crane from dismantling the pier, which he had committed to preserving. We all owe this man a debt of gratitude, as well as the designers and architects who crafted so many decisions as they were conceiving this park. They are a source of pure delight to the eye and the spirit, whether you’re strolling along on a beautiful spring day or stuck in a traffic jam on the highway above.

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The Unfinished Nature of Life

Walking on the High Line today I discovered that there’s still an unfinished section in the part of the park that’s open to the public. I shot a paver from that section (it’s at around 16th Street) back in mid-September, and there it was, five months later, still unfinished. There’s also a wonderful contraption called a Grasshopper, but I’m clueless about its purpose. This scene has remained untouched for months. Who knows why.

But it suddenly conjured a memory of something my father said ages ago about the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on 112th Street and Amsterdam. His grandfather, C. Grant La Farge, had been one of the architects; he designed the austere, dark, Romanesque/Byzantine section in the late 1880s. It wasn’t until 1941 that the cathedral finally opened but it wasn’t finished; World War II delayed it for another 32 years and the building remained in a state of incompleteness throughout my teenaged years. Work continued on and off for another 20 years — embracing two periods of financial distress — before Philippe Petit famously walked the high wire (from 150 above street level) across Amsterdam Avenue to deliver a silver trowel to Bishop Paul Moore, in honor of the start of the next phase of construction. My dad had died by the time a fire destroyed the north transcept of the church and the gift shop in December 2001; the scaffolding went up again and didn’t come down until 2007. (You can read the whole story on the Cathedral’s website.)

When I was a kid we used to visit the church often, and it was perpetually in a state of construction. The massive building is an odd mixture of different architectural styles that seem to have evolved over centuries, so when you walk through it you get that wonderful experience that New York City often offers of old and new, one style vs. another, all somehow unified by its New York City-ness. And you also get this other sense that I felt last week on the High Line: it’s always in medias res, not quite finished, getting a touch-up or an overhaul, “under construction,” “coming soon,” whatever. There’s always the promise of something more — even, maybe, something better.

So here on the High Line — itself in a state of construction — the finished part isn’t really finished yet. The sign makes no promises — “Area Closed — Work in Progress.” You can recline on a teak steamer chair (steamer bench, really), gaze out at the Hudson River and enjoy one of the most beautiful views in the City. But the orange cones are there to remind you that the place is still unfinished. What my father always said, as we’d walk around the cathedral, is that the unfinished quality of St. John the Divine reminded him of the fact that he was unfinished too. He thought we all are — we’re each of us a work-in-progress. That, plus the fact that all this unfinished business reminded him of his grandfather who died long before his work was done, made the scaffolding, barricades and  construction apparatus a perfectly natural, even beautiful part of life.

I was a young grasshopper then, but I remember it like it was yesterday. Thanks, High Line.

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