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Stephen Vitiello’s Bells From the Hudson River

Today is the first day of the Atlantic hurricane season, and this afternoon New York City was under a tornado watch. This made me think about a story I read about the Frying Pan lightship that’s docked at Pier 66a just a few blocks from my home and in view (I think, but won’t know for sure until next week when section 2 opens) of the High Line.

The Frying Pan was stationed at Frying Pan Shoals, 30 miles off Cape Fear in North Carolina. The boat, a lightship, was designed to be a floating lighthouse that would guard other ships and help them avoid running aground on shoals or submerged rocks. On the Frying Pan’s website you can read an account by a former captain of how the anemometer was literally blown away by Hurricane Donna. The boat and crew withstood 50 foot waves and a roll of 70 degrees. Someone else on the website describes life on the Frying Pan — which was launched just a few years before the elevated railroad we know today as the High Line opened for business — as “filled with months of boredom followed by minutes of pure fear.”

For a short time — until June 20th — you can hear the Pier 66 Maritime bell at 31 minutes past the hour, every hour, in the 14th Street Passage of the High Line. It’s part of Stephen Vitiello’s wonderful “A Bell for Every Minute” exhibit which I am so sad to remind you will close later this month. Get there a bit early and you can hear the bell of the noble John J. Harvey, a retired NYFD fireboat that steamed down to lower Manhattan on September 11th, 2001, to try to help put out the fires at the World Trade Center; the Harvey assisted the NYFD in evacuations and then returned to pump water from the Hudson River because the water mains downtown had been damaged by the terrorist attacks. That boat has a stately history too, which you can read about at fireboat.org.

So much New York-ness, present and historical, to be heard in Vitiello’s exhibit. Get there while you can; once it comes down it’ll be gone for good and won’t exist in any form on the web. The pdf of Vitiello’s “sound map” is here and won’t go away, but it’s silent. The bells are glorious. I wish they would become a permanent part of the High Line.

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