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The Resilience of Trees

There’s been a ton of talk lately about “New York Strong,” triumphant words from urban bipeds who are more than ready to move on from the latest crisis. Members of our species talk a lot about themselves — all day long on social media and TV, in op-ed articles and opinion pieces, books, magazine articles, or just the old-fashioned soap box on the nearest street corner. We always talk about how strong we are, how resilient, how innovative.

Walking around my neighborhood in West Chelsea I’ve been observing another form of resilience that’s much quieter, humbler, and so much more powerful. Take a look at this tree….

Plane tree on West 22nd Street

This London Plane (Platanus x acrifolia) stands near the corner of Tenth Avenue and 22nd Street. According to my neighbor and longtime caretaker of Clement Clarke Moore Park across the street, Allen Oster, it was planted sometime in the mid-to-late 1960s. Thanks to the fantastic New York City Street Tree Map, a project of the Parks department that identifies every street tree in town, it has its own ID number: 1425868.

The London Plane, an immigrant like so many of us, is the most common tree in New York City, making up about 12% of the Street Tree Map’s population. It has a story to tell about real strength and resilience, but you have to look closely to get the message….

When 1425868 was just a young shoot, the folks who planted it encircled the tree with an iron frame to protect it. The tree grew, but the iron didn’t budge. So this gorgeous piece of nature did what Nature has been doing since the beginning of time: it adapted. It grew around, and over, the iron frame. Eventually, it swallowed it whole. If you approach this tree and look closely, you’ll see real New York Strong: bits of rusty iron peeking through smooth bark.

Walk around it and you can almost hear 1425868 telling its story of resilience. Well, the cage was getting smaller and I was getting larger. Rather than capitulate, I grew around it, let it become a part of me. But I left windows here and there so the bipeds could see my past, and know my struggle, and learn from it.

Allen pointed me to a tree on the northeast corner of Tenth Avenue and 21st Street, which has what’s likely the same sort of “cage” that 1425868 had. According to the Street Tree Map this is a Thornless Honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos var. inermis), number 1425114.

Thornless Honey locust, Tenth Avenue at 21st Street

It too was determined to thrive so it devoured its jailor, in true New York style.

A bit farther uptown, on 87th Street, men were working near another Thornless Honey locust (no. 1444816), and permitted me to take a photo of what we normally can’t see: the deep mass of roots that thrive below street level.

All these trees have survived much more than their iron cages: Hurricane Sandy, and more recently Henri and Ida; countless dogs who lift a leg while passing by; pests and fungus; salt from the snow plow; the indignities of concrete and asphalt; construction sheds; cigarette butts, etc. They just keep growing in their own way, slowly, quietly, relentlessly, reliably. They don’t write op-eds and post on social media about how awesome and resilient they are. They don’t care if you notice them, but if you do, they’ll gladly share a bit of their story.


Ghost Pier

Pier 54, August 2012

In a landscape so dominated by verticals and horizontals, the arched steel entryway to Pier 54 (at the foot of 13th Street) stands out along the Hudson River and makes a handsome contrast. Perhaps no other pier in America has so much history attached to it. Completed in 1910, it was designed by Warren & Wetmore, the architectural firm that co-designed Grand Central Terminal; two years later the Cunard ship Carpathia docked here to discharge survivors of the RMS Titanic, which had been heading for Pier 59, today the golfing range of the Chelsea Piers fitness club. In January 2012 I was thrilled to witness the Queen Elizabeth of the Cunard line sailing by the remnants of this once grand pier.

January 2012, the Queen Elizabeth passes the old Cunard pier

In May 1915 the Lusitania departed from Pier 54 and only days later was torpedoed by the Germans,
an event that mobilized public opinion in support of the United States’s entry into World War I. The pier was again pressed into service during World War II, when it was used for troopships. In the 21st century it became a venue for rock concerts and a major party site during New York’s annual Gay Pride celebration. After it was closed to crowds, Pier 54 assumed a new — and my favorite — role for city residents of all ages: a safe place for parents to teach kids how to ride a bicycle.

Pier 54 with cyclists

Today, Pier 54 has been reconfigured as part of Barry Diller’s “Little Island,” which I wrote about here. This new park offers a wonderful view of the old archway, now from its backside.

The Archway of Pier 54 from Diller Island

Diller Island also offers a wonderful perch for studying up-close the “pile fields” of neighboring piers. These are the remnants of piers that recall the early 19th century, when this was the busiest port in America. It supported a massive trading empire that stretched across the oceans to include South America, Spain, Portugal, England, and China. The piers may be long gone but the piles remain because they provide habitat for various fish species, including striped bass, flounder, Atlantic herring, American eel, white perch, and bay anchovy. They’re also used by barnacles, clams, sea grapes, and shipworms, a form of mollusk that bores holes in the wood and eats the sawdust. We humans are never alone along the Hudson River.

Pile field looking north, toward Pier 57


Little Island on the Wrong Side of Town

The thing that most surprised me on my first visit to “Little Island,” Manhattan’s newest flashy park, was how much I wished I were somewhere else.

It’s not that I wasn’t brimming with anticipation about the opening of this place. I had been watching and photographing the development of this riverine park for years; studied designs that were published online; followed the legal controversy as it unfolded, like a metropolitan opera, in the pages of newspapers and websites. Little Island is a strikingly unusual outdoor space, one that rises improbably “atop a bouquet of tulip-shaped columns,” as Michael Kimmelman so perfectly described it in the Times. Its undulating pathways open up views no New Yorker has ever seen before, and along the way they treat us to a quite stunning mix of materials, colors, and shapes. It’s the experience of juxtaposed elements — hard & soft, high & low, bright & monochrome, historical & contemporary, intimate & expansive, industrial & high-tech — that you expect to encounter in a great art museum.

But as I walked, climbed and gazed around me, both at the people and the landscape, the same thought that has been dogging me since I first heard about Barry Diller’s fantasy island came back to haunt me. Stunning, original, improbable, innovative as it is — and Diller Island is all those things — how extraordinary it would be — how breathtaking and awesome and inspiring — if it were in the South Bronx, or some other part of New York City that’s underserved by world-class parks. And how stunning it would have been if such a park had opened in this of all years, after the ravages of a pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement made it impossible to un-see the many inequities that are stitched through the landscape of our city.

We’ve known for centuries how important beautiful outdoor spaces are to human health and happiness. In an 1850 magazine article Andrew Jackson Downing asked: “Is New York really not rich enough, or is there absolutely not enough land in America, to give our citizens public parks of more than ten acres?” A contemporary, James Gordon Bennett, declared in the New York Herald that a public park is a pair of lungs. And Tony Hiss, in his book The Experience of Place observes that Frederick Law Olmstead, co-creator of Central Park, “seems to have remarkably anticipated Christopher Alexander’s recent finding that people will not make regular use of a city park if it is more than about 750 feet, or three minutes’ walk, from their doors.” We have known forever that parks are essential. We have known forever that proximity to parks is essential. And yet….

Here on the Far West Side of Manhattan, in the neighborhoods of Hell’s Kitchen, West Chelsea and the Village, we have an embarrassment of riches: world-class parks that stretch for miles and miles. The High Line, Hudson River Park, Pier 84 with its kayak rentals, Pier 64 with its historic ships, Chelsea Waterside with its special amenities for kids, Pier 62 with its giant tent that’s invariably swelled by the music of saxophone or harmonica.

We didn’t need another new, world-class park here. What we need is new, world-class parks in places where they don’t exist. This is what has been bugging me since Mr. Diller’s project was first announced in 2014, by which point the High Line had become so crowded with tourists it became necessary, for me at least, to visit at the break or dawn or during thunderstorms. Parks in New York City are for New Yorkers. It’s wonderful that tourists love them too, but tourists are traveling people, and they will go where the great places are.

So while Diller Island — I feel compelled to call it by its original name, after the very rich man who built this park outside his office window — is a stunning, original, innovative, improbable, place that brings together horticulture, entertainment, glorious views of the Hudson River, industrial history (the pier that once sat here, Pier 54, was used by the Carpathia to discharge survivors of the Titanic, whose original destination was Pier 59), to me it is a lost opportunity. And as a lifelong New Yorker, it just breaks my heart that we couldn’t give this gift of place to our neighbors who really need it.

Click here to read more about the fascinating backstory of Pier 54. Click here to order Christopher Alexander’s groundbreaking book A Pattern Language. The reference I cited above, quoted by Tony Hiss, is on pp. 308-309.


Field of Green

For those of you wondering what the High Line looks like these days during the extended Coronavirus lockdown, well, it looks like all the rest of us: disheveled, unruly, a bit wild, and gorgeous as ever.

The High Line grows a beard

Long ago and far away, I posted a photo of the High Line’s first haircut: it was May 2, 2011, and felt like a truly monumental event. I opened that post with a quotation from Michael Pollan’s wonderful book Second Nature: “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.” At the time I was a bit disparaging about the High Line’s lawn and its commonplace, orderly, presence in this otherwise miraculous garden of diversity and even, occasionally, wildness.

Well, here we are, nine years later, with a field of green in the middle of Manhattan, wild grass blowing in the wind, telling a new story blade by blade, sentence by sentence, of the strange time during the spring of 2020, when the High Line was abandoned once again.

It’s just another chapter in the long, improbable, inspiring story of this unusual place.



A Great Day in a Great Park

Clement Clarke Moore Park, named in honor of the West Chelsea pioneer whose massive estate once stood on this ground, re-opened yesterday afternoon after a thoughtful and much-needed $1.5 million renovation. It’s not common these days to love politicians, but hearts were beating on 22nd Street when our much-loved Council Member and Speaker, Corey Johnson, joined the NYC Parks Commissioner, Mitchell Silver, NY State Assembly Member Richard Gottfried, and a team of hard-working staffers and community members to cut a green ribbon and officially declare the park re-opened.

the ribbon-cutting

[continue reading…]


At Last, The Thirtieth Street Depot

After years of searching, finally I’ve located a photograph of the Hudson River Railroad’s Thirtieth Street Depot. This is the station that once occupied part of the area where the Morgan General Mail Facility now stands on Tenth Avenue. It’s the train station that received, as its very first passenger, President-elect Abraham Lincoln, who passed through on February 19, 1861 en route to Washington, DC for his inauguration. I post here a photograph taken in April 1902, looking West down 30th Street:

The NY Central & Hudson River Railroad 30th Street Station, April 6, 1902, looking West. The New-York Historical Society, used with permission.

It’s a bit less grand than the illustration I’ve been relying on to tell the story of this spot, made by an artist for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper after Lincoln’s visit:

Abraham Lincoln’s Special Inaugural Train at the Hudson River Railroad Depot, 1861. From Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, courtesy the Library of Congress

It was also here that, four years later, President Lincoln’s body was transferred to a funeral train headed north on the Hudson River Railroad, after the cortège had reached New York on another railroad line. The Hudson River Railroad was designed to link New York with Albany, and from there connect with other roads heading west across the country. At 144 miles in length, the line opened in October of 1851, and while it took a good five hours to travel from Manhattan to Albany, the new railroad beat the fastest steamships by at least two hours.

Those interested in a detailed account of the obsequies and “Sombre Grandeur of the Funeral Pageant” will find a long, moving series of articles in the New York Times issue dated April 26, 1865, beginning with the “dense masses of immovable people” who turned out at City Hall to file by the President’s corpse and pay their respects. His body had reached New York at noon on Monday, April 24th, and lay in state at City Hall until Wednesday the 26th. At 12:30 on that day the funeral car arrived at the Hall, drawn by sixteen “magnificent gray horses, led each by a colored groom.” After what the Times reporter called “a vexatious delay,” a bugle sounded and the funeral procession — with countless regiments from every part of the military, an Invalid Corps and a battalion of police officers — finally made its way up Broadway toward the railroad depot at Thirtieth Street. Joining the procession was Bruno, who came to be known as “the dog mourner.” He was a large Saint Bernard who bolted from his owner, Edward H. Mostly, just as the funeral car passed the corner of Broadway and Chambers Streets, and followed along underneath the coffin for many blocks. “By what instinct was this?” the reporter asked, and then provided the answer: “Bruno was a friend and acquaintance of Mr. Lincoln’s, and had passed some time with him only a few days before his death.”

At 2:30 an aide “came galloping down Ninth Avenue” to report that the cortège was approaching. Shortly thereafter, and to “the thrilling roll of drums, the clash and swell of music, and the quick, sharp sound of the ‘present arms,'” the procession reached the station. Inside the depot was “a knot of wounded soldiers…[who] sat, poor fellows, fighting their battles over again. ” Lincoln’s catafalque was transferred to the Union, a “splendid locomotive” that had conveyed the President-elect three years earlier on his triumphal progress from Springfield to Washington for his inauguration. It was now draped in funerary cloth, its lamp decorated “with a magnificent wreath of living flowers.” Inside the funeral car Lincoln’s body was accompanied by that of his young son, Willie, who had died in February of 1862.

A bell rang, the conductor called out “All aboard!” and at 4:15 pm the Union pulled out of the Thirtieth Street Depot. Mourners were lined all along Tenth Avenue; they removed their hats as the funeral train emerged from the gate, and then disappeared around a curve.

Today, standing sentry over this hallowed ground, is “Brick House,” a 16′ high bronze sculpture by Simone Leigh that, according to Friends of the High Line, “encompasses several architectural and cultural references in tribute to the strength of Black female beauty.”

Simone Leigh, “Brick House” on the Tenth Avenue Spur

Read more about the Morgan General Mail Facility

Read more about President Lincoln’s Dangerous Day in Manhattan, 1861


The Rise of New York Port: 1815-1860, by Robert Greenhalgh Albion

The New York Times, April 26, 1865, https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1865/04/26/88155015.html?zoom=15.36

Christopher Gray, “Where Lincoln Tossed and Turned,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/27/realestate/27scapesready.html



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