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The Hudson River

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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Pace, Pete Seeger

DSC07413

Even on a day as sad as this, the Hudson River — your river, my river — rolls on.

We are all forever grateful.

It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations
    hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was
    refresh’d,
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood
    yet was hurried,
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships and the thick-stemm’d pipes
    of steamboats, I look’d.

— Walt Whitman, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”

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A River Runs Through It

Sandy's high water mark, 22nd Street near 11th Ave.

Hurricane Sandy’s high water mark. West 22nd Street, near 11th Ave.

When I was researching my High Line book I came across an autobiography published in 1864 by a professor at General Theological Seminary, Rev. Samuel H. Turner. In his book Dr. Turner recalls the days when there was a hill and an apple orchard behind the Seminary, and 21st Street was known as Love Lane. There was also, running north along the western edge of General Theological Seminary, something that would surprise a modern visitor. The Hudson River.

The city was just a bit smaller in those pre-landfill days, and Dr. Turner describes how, at high tide, the river “washed what is now the Tenth Avenue.” The Hudson presented many challenges to the Seminary community, including depositing at its front door waves of mud that was ankle deep. One winter, so much mud piled up around the building that “it was almost inaccessible, except on horseback or in a carriage.”

Rev. Samuel H. Turner

Rev. Samuel H. Turner

These days, as I walk down 22nd Street toward the West Side Highway, I find myself thinking about Dr. Turner and his mud problems. You have to look carefully, but there, running along several buildings on the north side of the street, is Hurricane Sandy’s high water mark.  Flecked with mud and grime, the crusty water line is an inch or so thick and stands about 5′ above the sidewalk.

No one has yet come to wipe this reminder away, though it crosses several properties. Here, on a spot where 200 years ago Samuel Turner and his colleagues would have seen whitecaps and sailing masts, is a strip of dirt from the deep caverns of our ancient riverbed. Sandy’s water line stands as an enduring, muddy cicatrice that marks the spot where briny waves of the Hudson River stormed past a restaurant, a furniture maker’s shop, a few art galleries, a city-run shelter for men, and some homes on the evening of October 29th.

After the Civil War the city began selling “water lots,” and developers rushed in to buy up chunks of the Hudson River, which they filled in and developed into factories, warehouses, and living quarters for the surging immigrant population that was flooding New York. The building where I live, which hugs the High Line east of Sandy’s water line on 22nd Street, was built in 1888 as a cigarette packing factory. Later it became a furniture factory for a company called Spears, which cut giant window bays into the brick walls and attached a loading dock that connected to the High Line, thus facilitating the shipment of furniture along the New York Central Railroad’s elevated freight line.

The High Line roughly follows the landfill line on the far west side of Manhattan. I’m pretty sure this is why the cabinets in my office started rattling and tilting during the freak earthquake of August 2011, while friends who were working on good old Manhattan schist in midtown felt nothing. Back in the early 19th century there was a river running beneath us.  Eager developers mastered some part of that river and built upon it what was first a center of industry and later became a magnet for artists, geeks, hedge fund guys and tourists. But what we now know, courtesy of Hurricane Sandy, is that this river will rise up from time to time and leave its watery mark on our real estate and on our lives.

No horse, no carriage, no automobile will ever be a match for the force that came through here two months ago.

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Goodnight, Irene

HUDSON, N.Y.

Yesterday afternoon, apparently in preparation for the hurricane, a sailboat laid anchor just below us in a cove near Roger Island. All morning a parade of boats — small and medium-sized yachts — motored up the Hudson River, probably on their way to the St. Lawrence Seaway. They were getting out of New York Harbor before the storm arrived.

But not this boat. At dusk we we went out to the porch to grill fish, and stood there for a while with our glasses of wine and stared down at the river, speculating . Why here? we wondered. Why this particular spot? As lights winked on across the river the sailboat remained completely dark; even the running lights were off. We figured maybe they were sleeping while they could, before the storm hit. They had pulled in the dinghy, battened down the hatches, and apparently were tucked away, waiting for the worst of it.

Early this morning I went out into the teeth of the storm to take a photo through the pounding rain. Incredibly, the sailboat was in the exact same position, still facing north, buffeted by small whitecaps but otherwise rather peaceful.  A few hours later it shifted 90 degrees and now faces west, towards the Catskills. The storm rages on, the Internet has come and gone and come again, and the sailboat rocks in the waves, anchored three times in the silt. The bow again faces north.Those people will have a story to tell about this night in the land of Rip Van Winkle.

And when they finally emerge from below deck and look around them, the sailors will be forgiven if they come to believe that Hurricane Irene magically transported their sailboat to the muddy Mississippi River.

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