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The Unfinished Nature of Life

Walking on the High Line today I discovered that there’s still an unfinished section in the part of the park that’s open to the public. I shot a paver from that section (it’s at around 16th Street) back in mid-September, and there it was, five months later, still unfinished. There’s also a wonderful contraption called a Grasshopper, which is used to lift and move heavy materials like concrete pavers. This scene has remained untouched for months. Who knows why.

But it suddenly conjured a memory of something my father said ages ago about the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on 112th Street and Amsterdam. His grandfather, C. Grant LaFarge, had been one of the architects; he designed the austere, dark, Romanesque/Byzantine section in the late 1880s. It wasn’t until 1941 that the cathedral finally opened but it wasn’t finished; World War II delayed it for another 32 years and the building remained in a state of incompleteness throughout my teenaged years. Work continued on and off for another 20 years — embracing two periods of financial distress — before Philippe Petit famously walked the high wire (from 150 above street level) across Amsterdam Avenue to deliver a silver trowel to Bishop Paul Moore, in honor of the start of the next phase of construction. My dad had died by the time a fire destroyed the north transcept of the church and the gift shop in December 2001; the scaffolding went up again and didn’t come down until 2007. (You can read the whole story on the Cathedral’s website.)

When I was a kid we used to visit the church often, and it was perpetually in a state of construction. The massive building is an odd mixture of different architectural styles that seem to have evolved over centuries, so when you walk through it you get that wonderful experience that New York City often offers of old and new, one style vs. another, all somehow unified by its New York City-ness. And you also get this other sense that I felt last week on the High Line: it’s always in medias res, not quite finished, getting a touch-up or an overhaul, “under construction,” “coming soon,” whatever. There’s always the promise of something more — even, maybe, something better.

So here on the High Line — itself in a perpetual state of construction — the finished part isn’t really finished yet. The sign makes no promises — “Area Closed — Work in Progress.” You can recline on a teak bench, gaze out at the Hudson River and enjoy one of the most beautiful views in the city. But the orange cones are there to remind you that the place is still unfinished. What my father always said, as we’d walk around the cathedral, is that the unfinished quality of St. John the Divine reminded him of the fact that he was unfinished too. He thought we all are — we’re each of us a work-in-progress. That, plus the fact that all this unfinished business reminded him of his grandfather who died long before his work was done, made the scaffolding, barricades and  construction apparatus a perfectly natural, even beautiful part of life.

I was a young grasshopper then, but I remember it like it was yesterday. Thanks, High Line.

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