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lonely high line

The Incomparable Johnny

Johnny Linville, Spring Cutback, March 2012

Johnny Linville, Spring Cutback, March 2012

There are thousands of plants on the High Line. No one can know for sure the actual number, but every year an army of volunteers joins the park’s gardening staff for the annual March Cutback, and in our training we’re told that in the course of five or six weeks we’ll cut back 100,000 plants. Maybe more, maybe less, but here’s something I know for sure: the enormity of that number is just one measure of the sadness that has descended on the garden since the loss of Johnny Linville last week.

Johnny began working at Friends of the High Line in June 2009, the month the park opened to the public. He didn’t start his professional career in horticulture, though; he first held a more traditional office job at Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes, which runs centers around the country that help children and adults improve themselves in reading, language comprehension, vocabulary, and math. Johnny was an associate director at one of the centers by the time he realized he was more passionate about gardening than anything else. He took a flier and applied for an internship with the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and that gave him a foundation of technical knowledge. It also launched him on a new and exceptionally successful career trajectory, beginning as a Gardener at Friends of the High Line, then moving up to Horticulture Foreman and, at the time of his death last week, Manager of Horticulture.

He was irrepressibly passionate about plants, captivated as much by their beauty as by their storylines. Last Fall I ran into him in the park at the moment when he was studying apples, trying to decide which variety to plant in the new and final section of the High Line at the Rail Yards. He was brimming with enthusiasm, telling stories about Thomas Jefferson and his orchards, clearly thrilled to be spending his day doing the research that would determine which apple variety would make it to the High Line.

He was also a profoundly generous guy. Time after time, Johnny found ways to help me better understand the High Line and how it works, engineering a visit in 2012 to the Fresh Kills Landfill where all the cuttings from the Cutback are recycled and, more recently, to the Sunny Border Nursery in Kensington, CT, which supplied plants for the High Line at the Rail Yards. (In classic Johnny fashion, he was determined to properly prepare me for that visit, and the week before emailed a long magazine article that recounts the fascinating story of 79-year old Pierre Bennerup, who helps run the nursery that his father founded in 1938, launching a revolution in the sale of perennials.)

Johnny was generous with his time and his expertise, and ardently perfectionistic about getting the facts right. He was funny, patient, ripped with muscles and he loved dogs. He had a huge, contagious smile, and tattoos that were so distinctive I was able to recognize him through my camera lens from the 35th floor of the Ohm apartment building, as he strolled some 400 feet below, inspecting new plantings in the Rail Yards.

Six months ago, he accompanied me to Reading, Pennsylvania, to attend a memorial service for a mutual friend who also died too young, Paul VanMeter. Before the service a contingent of railfans and garden lovers made a pilgrimage to the Reading Blue Mountain & Northern Railroad, a place dear to Paul’s heart.  Johnny and I walked together through the yard, balancing on the rails and talking about Paul, and before we left he pulled a quarter from his pocket and laid it on the track, a gesture of remembrance. “For Paul,” he said.  Something motivated me to take a photograph, which I discovered this week as I was going through pictures of Johnny. Wonderful, bold, elfin, passionate, curious, loyal, dedicated, Johnny.

This afternoon I stopped by the High Line — Johnny’s garden — this place of reinvention and respite, and placed a quarter on one of the tracks that cuts through a cluster of prairie grasses and wildflowers. A gesture of remembrance, and also one of hope: that Johnny knew how deeply he touched so very many people, and how much we all loved him.

For a park so notoriously crowded, with its 100,000 plants and millions of visitors, it suddenly feels so empty.

Note: on Thursday, August 7, a memorial service was held in the 14th Passage on the High Line. It was a devastatingly sad and moving event, which ended in a moment of silence with “Song to the Siren” from This Mortal Coil playing in the background. It apparently was Johnny’s favorite.

Johnny Linville on the Reading Viaduct, Philadelphia, October 2011

Johnny on the Reading Viaduct, Philadelphia, October 2011

Johnny Linville at Sunny Border Nursery, May 2014

Johnny at Sunny Border Nursery, May 2014

Johnny Linville with Piet Oudolf and colleagues from James Corner Field Ops, May 2014

Johnny with Piet Oudolf (left) and colleagues from James Corner Field Ops, May 2014

Johnny from 400'

Johnny from 400′, May 2014

Johnny with fellow FHL gardeners in Philadelphia, October 2011. Photo by Rick Darke

Johnny with fellow FHL gardeners in Philadelphia, October 2011. Photo by Rick Darke

Johnny & Me, Port Clinton, PA, March 8, 2014

Johnny & Me, Port Clinton, PA, March 8, 2014. Photo by Rick Darke

Blessings on you, Johnny.

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Note: for more about Johnny Linville, read the brief and lovely profile by Auzelle Epeneter on TheHighLine.org.

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Farewell, Paul VanMeter

Paul VanMeter, September 2012, on the Reading Viaduct

Paul VanMeter, September 2012, on the Reading Viaduct

I first met Paul VanMeter on a rainy day in Philadelphia in 2011. Rick Darke, our great mutual friend, had organized a visit to the Reading Viaduct with the gardening staff of Friends of the High Line. With unabating enthusiasm Paul led us through the streets of Philadelphia, stopping every few blocks to whip out his iPad to show a photograph of the very same spot where we stood, a century ago. Swiping the glass screen he conjured image after image: the giant Baldwin Locomotive Works, old bicycle and balloon factories, and a sprawling machine works that once made the stuff that fired Paul’s railroad dreams: steam hammers, hydraulic parts, boiler makers’ tools. [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.

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[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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Frozen Park in the Sky

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This photo doesn’t show how bone-chillingly cold it was on the High Line today. It doesn’t show the million-mile-per-hour wind or the stinging sensation of thousands of snowflakes dive-bombing your eyeballs. There were just a few hardy souls in the park today, but they were stalwarts for sure.

That woman in the photo took off her gloves after she passed underneath the Standard Hotel to take a photograph of Pier 54. Her fingers are probably still numb, but I bet the shot was worth it.

Hey, if you’re one of those whingers who’s always complaining about how crowded the High Line is, get off your duff! A small army of volunteers will be assembling early tomorrow morning to clear the snow, and it’ll be jaw-droppingly beautiful up there by the time you arrive. And bone-chillingly cold.

Bring your camera!

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Where have all the people gone?

Chelsea Grasslands

Chelsea Grasslands

Is this the same High Line that Jeremiah Moss recently decried as “Disney World on the Hudson?”

Where is everyone???

Hey, listen up: it’s drop-dead gorgeous up there this time of year, and right now– or on any drizzly day, for that matter — you can have the whole place to yourself.

I’ve never understood why so few people go out for a walk on a rainy afternoon. By 4:00 pm today it was just spitting, not nearly raining, and the newly trimmed plants — cut back by a small army of volunteers over the past few weeks — are bursting with the promise of spring.

Without the long, dying grasses drooping and cascading over them, the railroad tracks are suddenly in full view; if you stand at 30th Street and look south you can see enough of them to actually get a sense of perspective projection distortion, the visual phenomenon that makes it seem as though the rails are converging. There’s not a tourist in sight to block your view. In the Chelsea Grassland, where the Cutback Army hasn’t yet massed, you can crinkle-shut your eyes and pretend you’re in a field in Nebraska.

I don’t want to hear any more complaints about how crowded the High Line is.

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Wildflower Field

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A Perfect High Line Day

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It’s cold outside, 19 degrees according to my weather app, but on the windy High Line it’s colder still. And yet: what a perfect day to be here. The sky is a painter’s cerulean blue, and the sun is bright. It angles its light across the park, making the grasses tawny and casting beautiful shadows across the pavement.

And the park is empty, but for a few hardy souls. It’s also quiet, because many of the ubiquitous construction crews seem to have found indoor projects.  On days like this I remember that the High Line is our park — a neighborhood place where you can pop by for a quick, enjoyable walk in the middle of a busy day.  It’s going to be like this through the week, lucky us.

 

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Perfect High Line Weather

With rain and thunder in the forecast it’s a perfect day for the High Line.

Many folks complain about the crowds in the park. Now that spring has arrived (in theory, at least) there are scads of people there and it’s only going to get more crowded once the new section opens.

On really rainy days the die-hards come out. Pass them by and you might get a subtle nod, like guys on motorcycles who flash their lights at fellow bikers traveling in the opposite direction. Yeah, cool, you’re here too. Nice day for a walk.

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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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Ghostly High Line

I walked down the High Line tonight to pick Ann up and have a bite. To my surprise and delight, it was glowing blue. The iPhone doesn’t quite do it justice.

I saw barely anyone, as it was raining outside. But there’s a hard core High Line visitor who’s undeterred by weather. Passing these folks I get the feeling that I imagine motorcyclists do when they pass each other on the highway; you see them flicking their lights or giving a more subtle, half-high-five. So that’s what rainy High Liners do too: a slight tip of the head or a raised finger if there’s a free hand. “Hey, you’re here too. Isn’t it great without the crowds?”

I shook myself dry in the tunnel, then continued on, very happy indeed.


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