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keep it wild

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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The Shy Birds of High Line

A quite wonderful thing is happening on the High Line in section two: the birds are really flocking to Sarah Sze’s sculpture.

But they’re shy, at least during the daytime when thousands of people are passing by, sticking camera lenses into their little wooden houses and offering good, old-fashioned New York City food critiques of their bird seed. However, once you approach the exhibit you start hearing this chorus of chirping, and if you look around in the grass and stone mulch you can see them hopping around. I caught this mourning dove today, but there were lots of sparrows too, as well as butterflies who were enjoying the fruit that has been left for them.

I marvel that there’s this habitat just outside my window and am reminded, again, at what “Keep it wild” really means.

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What “Keeping it Wild” Really Means

Here’s something new I learned today about the High Line: they don’t use commercial salt products to melt ice on the pavements. It’s easy to understand why: the surface of the park is carefully crafted from stone, cement, asphalt, wood and steel: all surfaces that would quickly degrade in the presence of chemicals, to say nothing of all the plants, frozen though they may be. (To paraphrase Bob Dylan: they ain’t dead, they’re just asleep…) This is why the park was closed this morning until about 11:00 am: the staff was up there hacking away at the ice.

The first worker I spoke with told me “we don’t use salt,” which is a bit of an exaggeration because I did see what looked like rock salt on the pathways. What she meant, I think, is they don’t use that dreadful chemical product that is now ubiquitous all over New York City and comes in tiny white pebbles made of  calcium chloride, potassium chloride, and sodium chloride. It works quickly, sparing businesses, homeowners and superintendents the need to break a sweat, but it turns the streets into black, oily, fields of gloom.  Some day deep in the future we’ll learn that these chemicals, leached by the acre into the Hudson River, killed multiple species of fish and plankton and who knows what else.

Meantime, our friends up on the High Line are doing it the old-fashioned way: by hand, with tiny amounts of rock salt and sand to help ensure that people don’t fall and break their necks. It was worth missing a morning stroll. This is real husbandry of a public space, wonderful to see, even if it means we have to wait a few hours for the privilege.

And if you can, get there today or tomorrow so you can see the frozen waves of snow that are caught in ice. They cast a sheen that varies in color depending on where the sun is sitting and it’s positively gorgeous. Just take it slow and steady.


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