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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I took my eye off this blog for awhile, and have only now begun the process of revising a few pieces that fell out of date.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.


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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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 29, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called on the American people to stand firm in support of its Allies who were blocking “dictators in their march toward domination of the world.” Readers today won’t recognize the political climate; looking back on the recent presidential election, FDR praised his opponent, saying “The leader of the Republican Party himself — Mr. Wendell Willkie — in word and action, is showing what patriotic Americans mean by rising above partisanship and rallying to the common cause.”

Meanwhile, back at home women were buying Easter hats – just $19.95 at B. Altman. The first Peabody Awards, dubbed “Pulitzer Prizes of air,” had just been announced; the Book-of-the-Month Club featured Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls; and a two-room studio at the Chelsea Hotel could be had for $19 a week. Budd Schulberg’s novel What Makes Sammy Run? was reviewed in the Book Review, and an article in the Magazine explored the question: “Are Movies Good or Bad” for children?

And then there was this photograph, which ran under the headline “Last ‘Cowboy’ Rides Over Tenth Ave. Route; Tracks Now Elevated, Horses Get New Job.”

George Hayde, the last West Side Cowboy, on March 29, 1941. Copyright Times Wide World/The New York Times/Redux. Used with permission

George Hayde, the last West Side Cowboy. March 29, 1941. Copyright Times Wide World/The New York Times/Redux. Used with permission

The picture captures George Hayde, age twenty-one, who became New York City’s last urban cowboy with this final ride up Tenth Avenue. He and “his faithful bay, Cyclone” were leading a line of fourteen rail cars loaded with oranges. They were performing, for the last time in history, a unique job created by an 185os city ordinance that permitted freight trains to share the busy streets with pedestrians, dog-carts, bicycles, cars and trucks, on condition they observe a speed limit of six miles per hour and that “a proper person… precede the trains on horseback to give necessary warning in a suitable manner on their approach.” [For rare video of the West Side Cowboy riding up Tenth Avenue, click here.]
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Lehigh Valley No. 79: The Aerial Shot

Hoboken Terminal from the 8th Floor of the Whitney Museum

Hoboken Terminal from the 8th Floor of the Whitney Museum

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 another suggestion for those who like the aerial perspective: the 8th floor terrace of the new Whitney Museum. If you point your camera west you’ll get a shot of this historic barge, a rare monument to the Lighterage Era and currently a floating museum based Red Hook, as it passes the grand old Hoboken Terminal.

Hoboken Terminal at night. Photo by Scott Mlyn.

Hoboken Terminal at night. Photo by Scott Mlyn.

Designed by architect Kenneth Murchison, the Beaux Arts Terminal greeted passengers in a grand style by allowing the sun to stream through stained-glass windows made by Louis Tiffany. It opened as a rail and ferry terminal in 1907, just seven years before the Lehigh Valley No. 79 was built in Perth Amboy.  At night, the big red letters on the eastern facade of the Hoboken Terminal light up to read ERIE LACKAWANNA, and the recently restored clock tower marks time for vessels passing by.

There are a million other reasons to visit the Whitney (see my piece here about the history of the site the new building occupies), but on my mind today is Louis Lozowick, an Art Deco-era painter who emigrated from Russia the year before the Hoboken Terminal opened. I first discovered his work in the WPA Guide to New York City, published in 1939 with the intent to “indicate the human character of the city, to point out the evidence of achievements and shortcomings, urban glamor as well as urban sordidness.” The editors selected Lozowick’s  wonderful drawing of a railroad barge being pulled by a tugboat to illustrate Lower Manhattan in the 1930s.

Lower Manhattan, 1936. Lithograph by Louis Lozowick. US National Archives.

Lower Manhattan, 1936. Lithograph by Louis Lozowick. US National Archives.

After seeing that evocation of the lighterage system I embarked on a hunt for more of Lozowick’s work, found a giant archive on the Smithsonian’s website, and got lost for hours. He was devoted to bridges, buildings, river traffic — particularly tugboats — and the industrial iconography of cities: gantries, factories, smokestacks, water tanks: many of the elements folks love about the historic landscape of the High Line.  Most of Lozowick’s work was in black & white, which contributes a kind of moodiness and authenticity to his scenes.

It’s easy to fall in love with Louis Lozowick, and as I clicked through the pages of the archive I was amazed at the range of subjects he painted. His wife told the New York Times that “He always did what he wanted to do, he didn’t care about prevalent styles, nor about the market. He was doing abstractions when others were doing realist work, and when others were doing abstract things, he was doing realist pieces.”

What took my breath away at the Whitney Museum was Lozowick’s drawing of a lynching, which is part of a powerful collection of prints made to support a 1930s anti-lynching bill in Congress. It’s completely unlike the rest of his work, in part because it evokes a force of such raw humanity. There are a few other Lozowick’s in the Whitney’s inaugural show, “America is Hard to See,” including some of his abstractions; you can see all of the museum’s holdings here, including “Lynching” (1936).

And: if you’re there to watch the Lehigh Valley No. 79 sail by later this week, be sure to check out Victoria Hutson Huntley’s 1934 depiction of “Lower New York,” which includes an elevated railroad and a couple of tugboats; it’ll put you in just the right mood. The Whitney kindly allowed me to reproduce Huntley’s lithograph here. [As always, click an image to enlarge it.]

Victoria Hutson Huntley, Lower New York, 1934. Lithograph. Whitney museum of American Art, NY

Victoria Hutson Huntley, “Lower New York, 1934.” Lithograph. Whitney Museum of American Art, currently on view in the inaugural exhibition “America is Hard to See” (May 1 – Sept. 27, 2015). Used with permission.

Okay, I confess this post digressed from its original purpose: to identify the best aerial spot in Manhattan to photograph the Lehigh Valley No. 79 as it begins its northerly voyage in a few days. But this is what happens when you start thinking about railroads, tugboats, the Hudson River and Manhattan’s edge. Everything around us is connected to the past, and the Whitney is both glorious museum and grand, public parapet that puts so much of our cultural and industrial history on display. It’s what the WPA writers considered “urban glamor.”


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.