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High Line Gets a Haircut

“If lawn mowing feels like copying the same sentence over and over, gardening is like writing out new ones, an infinitely variable process of invention and discovery.” — Michael Pollan, Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education

I’ve been waiting for this moment: the sound of the screeching lawn mower, right here in the middle of Manhattan.

The grass has been getting awfully long down there on the High Line and last week I found myself muttering (like a restless housewife) “they better get that lawn cut…” In fact the fellow with the mower did struggle today; he kept having to stop his work to clear big, wet clumps of grass from both the lawn and his machine, stuffing them in a burlap bag before moving on to the next row. But this young fella had good manners: he shut down the machine every time he had to pause, then cranked it back up when he was ready to continue, thus sparing us all unnecessary noise and fumes.

I would have been happier with a grove of birch or flowering fruit trees down there. A lawn seems so pedestrian compared to the glorious diversity of plants in the rest of the park. But that grass is gorgeous and thick, and it’ll give me pleasure — a small blast from the country — to hear the mowing and the weedwhacking each week.  And the smell of cut grass is a mighty fine accompaniment to a hot cup of Lapsang Suchong in the morning.

I know why Michael Pollan ended his argument about lawns with this sentiment: “Yes, there might well be a place for a small lawn in my new garden.”

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What the Camera Lets us See

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how the act of taking a picture — I don’t want to call it “photography” since what I’m doing is so much below the standard of art and more a gesture of observation and record-keeping — can engage a person with a subject. This has been on my mind since I encountered the Hipstamatic app (thanks to photographer Scott Mlyn) which puts a moody scrim around a photo. You never know what the picture will look like because the app itself is moody: it changes from snap to snap, so it’s quite unpredictable. It results in a much more voicey photo because the app expresses its voice alongside yours.

The New York Times just published a photo essay by Damon Winter of pictures taken of the war in Afghanistan with the iPhone and Hipstamatic app. In the Intro. they talk about how gear shouldn’t matter — “few people care about what kind of typewriter Hemingway used” — but Winter chose to use his phone for good and interesting reasons, and the photos are gorgeous. If you haven’t seen them check out the Lens blog. Four of them made the front page of the printed paper — above the fold. (Side note: I’m actually quite passionate about typewriters too, and on another occasion will write about manual Smith Coronas and new-fangled IBM Selectrics.)

Anyway, I just love Hipstamatic, so have been shooting with it every day for a couple of weeks now. That in turn unleashed an ambition to mix things up again, so I co-opted Ann’s Leica M-8 and began shooting in black & white. The Leica relies on a split-image focus mechanism, something I’m familiar with from using my dad’s old Leica IIIf, and that itself is a big change. (Hipstamatic, of course, has no focus; my Nikon D80 — which I’ve used for many of the photos on this blog — has an autofocus, which I now think I rely on too much.)

I don’t know what it is about black & white but I’m finding that it makes everything look more elegant.  Maybe it’s because everything in our culture is so loud, bright, and colorful. Black & white is like the mute button, and it encourages us to contemplate from another, quieter, perspective. In its own way — through unpredictable distortion — Hipstamatic also provides another angle to see and observe.

The High Line is a great place to test out these ideas and play around with them. If I were a better photographer the results would be more satisfying, no doubt. But the technology — the old and the new — opens doors for me, which is ultimately what I love about technology.

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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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Trees in a Wilderness of Concrete

I don’t know a single New Yorker who’s not amazed by the trees that grow all over the city, popping up through the sidewalks, poking their branches against the windows of brownstones. (Side note: I’ve always loved those wonderful grates made by the Neenah Foundry. I have a friend named Neenah who was named after the company. If you visit their website you can browse all the different “collections” they have for tree grates.)

All this came to mind after I looked out the window this morning and beheld trees on the High Line. From here they look like Douglas Fir, but it’s hard to tell. (Nice thing about the High Line: no deer!). The construction guys — or maybe they’re from the nursery, it’s hard to know because they all wear hard hats — are getting ready for planting. Finally, amid all the cement and rebar, the plants are arriving. It’s great to see, particularly now that The Condo is eight storeys high and climbing. We’ve lost our view of the Con Ed building’s cupula, and the water towers across the street, on the London Towers complex, are just about to disappear too.

But we have trees! And that puts me in a fine mood.

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Action in the Neighborhood

I haven’t written in awhile, and the reason is not that I’ve been launching websites (which I have) or traveling on the west coast (which I was) but something more prosaic: there hasn’t been any action at all on my section of the High Line.

But things are changing and we have three developments. First, The Rat.

This fella has nothing to do with the High Line; he’s protesting the management and workers of a new condominium that’s just beginning to rise from the concrete outside my window. What you can’t perceive is the cacophony of whistles and car horns that this creature inspires. So my work has a new soundtrack, and it’s not altogether pleasant.

But I’m happy that the Rat and his friends are able to exercise their right to free speech.

The building they are addressing is harder to like. It’ll ruin my view of 10th Avenue, and thereby my ability to grok whether or not it’ll be easy to get a taxi, or how much snow has actually accumulated, or whether people are using umbrellas or not. Luckily, it won’t block my view of the High Line.

So if you look past the under-construction-section of the High Line you’ll see the rebar and rough framing for the second floor of this new condominium. The only upside as far I can tell is that we will no longer have to look out at the bright blue, neon, Chase Bank logos that just got installed on the NE corner of 23rd and light up the neighborhood at night; this new building will block that too.

But back to the High Line. Here’s the exciting action on that front: today I discovered men unloading piles of earth for the plantings. The landscapers have arrived, and though it doesn’t look like our section is nearly ready for it, you can just imagine the trees, grasses and wildflowers that are on the way. That’s cause for celebration.

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