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The Naked Highline

To see a World in a blade of grass…

(With apologies to William Blake….)

As the opening of the second section of the High Line draws near I offer a tiny, easy-to-miss piece of nostalgia for hard-core lovers of this “meadow in the sky.” The single blade of grass you see in the photo above grows at the southern-most portion of the original High Line on Bank and Washington Streets. Trains pulled through what was then the Bell Telephone Laboratory, the largest industrial research center in the world — TV was invented here as was radar and the transistor — and would continue on a few more blocks to the St. John’s Park Terminal at Spring Street. Today the building is Westbeth, an artist’s community. I used to spend a lot of time here as a kid with friends of my dad’s. It’s a very cool building, though it seems to have shrunk since I was a teenager.

This stalk of grass is most likely a volunteer that hitched a ride from the prairies of the midwest on a train that was headed to New York City. (Is anybody else hearing Arlo Guthrie right about now?)  Or maybe the seed it sprang from dropped from the beak of a bird’s mouth as it was flying south. Who knows? Piet Oudolf, the great Dutch plantsman who designed the modern High Line, filled the park with many kinds of prairie grass that are native to North America — classic John Wayne stuff — but also grasses from the United Kingdom, Europe, South America and North Africa. Everything you see in the park today was planted recently, but many of the varieties were “self-sewn” over the decades that the rail line operated, from 1934 to 1980. I bet this Bell Labs/Westbeth blade of grass sewed itself. Maybe someone out there can identify it.  Meantime, we can gaze up and give it a little salute, because this single stalk, a hardy New York City native that grows — even thrives — between metal and concrete, stands for much of what’s great about the High Line and the city it traverses.

Long may it wave.

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The Colorful Machinery

What a difference a day makes.  We go from orange cement mixer to green, and the crew appears in a combination of yellow and orange anoraks. The men continue to build and pour cement, and the condo rises. I think we have a couple of weeks before it reaches above the low, gray buildings on Tenth Avenue.

On the High Line deck (in the photo with the green mixer) you can see little bundles which I think are wrapped-up, upside-down benches. We shall see. The spruce trees are lovely, and all the greenery must be happy for the rain we’ve had over the past few days. It’s quiet on the High Line, noisy on the condo.



Taking Bucky downstairs for a quick pee this morning I was greeted with a sign in our elevator bearing the headline: “Notice of High Line Deck Waterproofing.” Snapped it with my iPhone. Juggling a leash with an impatient dog at the other end didn’t help, but you get the picture: we are advised that “Deck Waterproofing” is soon to begin. The sign explains that “three coats of waterproofing, primer and two finish” will be applied. “Because concrete waterproofing is a very weather dependent operation,” they go on, “it is difficult to provide an exact schedule.”  And then the kicker: “The waterproofing operation is likely to be accompanied by odors…” Luckily this operation took place on a cold January day so there was no need to close a window.




But wait, the men in Hasmat suits are back, and they are painting the High Line white.  The smell is still overbearing.  They have a particular way of doing this, a choreography that seems to work well:  all the guys walk east with their sprayers and then they walk west, following the east/west axis of the High Line.

It doesn’t take long, and soon the Highline is bright white, ready for its next moment.



Trucks, Machines, and the High Line Turns Yellow

Days pass with no action and suddenly there is a large truck on the Highline.  How did it get there?  Why do I have to go to meetings?

The truck gives way to yet another machine, but before these fellows arrived on the scene a worker made a huge amount of noise with a leaf blower.  Perhaps he was drying out the concrete?  I had to move to the bedroom in order to take a business call.  This blue machine appears to be a precise instrument that does what??

And then, most amazing of all, the men change outfits and re-emerge in Hasmat suits to paint the Highline yellow.


The smell is so awful and sickening that I am forced to close every window in the apartment (7 face the Highline) and turn on the air conditioning.  Finally I move (again) to the bedroom.  What is this paint and why does it smell so deadly?

But it certainly does the trick. The Highline is now yellow.


The Naked Highline

We begin on a rainy August day, 8/28, with a group of men in hardhats preparing the bed of the glorious walkway we’ll all enjoy later in 2010.  It looks like they’re running some sort of a drainage pipe along the concrete floor.

Soon there are more men:  guys carrying large wooden beams across the wire-meshed underfloor that will soon be covered in freshly-poured concrete.  A fellow in a pretty nifty full-length anorak stands in the concrete toward the northern end. I bet that guy jumped in puddles as a kid.



The Naked Highline, part 2

Before long the concrete has been poured and the smoothing-out process begins. I missed the pouring -– must’ve been at a meeting — but our block was filled with huge trucks and machines and a gigantic giraffe-like contraption that apparently sucked the concrete up to High Line and poured it down for the men who were waiting.