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Friends of the High Line

Dreaming in Philadelphia

Over the past few days I’ve been taking booksellers in town for Book Expo America on walking tours of the High Line. As part of my preamble, I always find myself talking about High Line: The Inside Story of New York City’s Park in the Sky, the 2011 book by Friends of the High Line co-founders Joshua David and Robert Hammond. I re-read this book every year because it puts me in a good mood and makes me feel optimistic about cities. The High Line faced such formidable resistance on so many fronts that it truly is a miracle that the thing exists at all. But in fact it now is inspiring other communities all over the world to believe in the possibility of creating innovative, people-friendly green spaces from post-industrial sites.

Which brings us back, once again, to the great Paul VanMeter, a driving force behind The Rail Park in Philadelphia. That project began with a dream to create a three mile urban greenway, part of which will be part elevated, like the High Line, and part of which will be submerged, in tunnels created more than 100 years ago by the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad. Paul died in February, but the project lives on. This week PBS Digital Studios released a short film about Paul and the Rail Park as part of its Unusual Spaces series. It’s an inspiring reminder that these unique, miraculous, places begin with someone’s passionate dream, and then take a decade or more to realize. The High Line is testament that it can be done, and the short film below bears witness to the dream unfolding. Give it a watch and you’ll see what I mean. To read more about Paul, click here.


Vincent Scully & The High Line

ALAFARGE_DSC01343Earlier this week Joshua David and Robert Hammond, co-founders of Friends of the High Line, received the prestigious Vincent Scully Prize. Awarded by the National Building Museum in Washington, it was created to recognize extraordinary practice, scholarship or criticism in architecture, historic preservation and urban design. The namesake of the award and its first recipient was an art history professor at Yale University. New Yorkers may remember Scully best for his comment about the atrocity that replaced the majestic, Beaux-Arts Penn Station that was torn down fifty years ago this month: “One entered the city like a God. One scuttles in now like a rat.”

Paul Goldberger, in introducing the co-founders, spoke about the impossibility of the High Line, and “all the reasons why it couldn’t work.” I recently re-read David and Hammond’s High Line: The Inside Story of New York City’s Park in the Sky, the tick-tock of the entire reclamation and preservation story, and “impossible” is just the right word. The book is an unlikely page-turner, and I recommend it as a tonic for these very particular days when our government is shut down and it’s hard to believe in anything good in the public realm. The existence of the High Line is a miracle, pure and simple, and it shows that innovative, creative, beautiful — and impossible — things can be done in our communities.

There are dozens of people who helped make the High Line the place that it is: early supporters, both in and out of government, who gave invaluable advice and support to the fledgling Friends of the High Line; landscape architect James Corner and his team; architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro; Dutch plantsman Piet Oudolf; and a staff of incomparably talented and dedicated staff, both in the garden and the back office.  David and Hammond are like dual conductors of a symphony orchestra: not the men who make the music but the ones who enable it.  It’s worth watching their speech online — click here for the video on YouTube — because it not only recaps the whole story but it also conveys the energy and optimism that have driven the entire project from its earliest days. It’ll put you in a good mood, I promise.

David closes his comments by quoting the second winner of the Vincent Scully Prize, the great Jane Jacobs, whose love of neighborhood and city were inspirations to both men. But along this urban greenway that did so much to preserve a sense of wildness in the center of our thriving, growing, city, I hear Scully’s voice resonating. In the 1960s, he testified in hearings to protest Con Edison’s plan to build a massive power plant at Storm King on the Hudson River, some 60 miles north of Gansevoort Street, “at the very threshold of New York.” The victory to preserve Storm King marked the beginning of the modern environmental movement; it was the first miracle story in New York State, and every activist since has carried a bit of the mountain in his soul. Here’s what Scully said, some 50 years before the opening of the High Line:

“Storm King…is a mountain which should be left alone. It rises like a brown bear out of the river, a dome of living granite, swelling with animal power. It is not picturesque in the softer sense of the word, but awesome, a primitive embodiment of the energies of the earth. It makes the character of wild nature physically visible in monumental form. As such it strongly reminds me of some of the natural formations which mark sacred sites in Greece and signal the presence of the Gods; it preserves and embodies the most savage and untrammeled characteristics of the wild at the very threshold of New York. It can still make the city dweller emotionally aware of what he most needs to know: that nature still exists, with its own laws, rhythms, and powers, separate from human desires.”


Jeremiah Moss and the Misplaced Gerund

For years I’ve followed Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, the blog that takes “a bitterly nostalgic look at a city in the process of going extinct,” with admiration and interest. I’ve linked to it from this blog (and still do) along with various other sites that cover New York from a unique perspective. As a lifelong New Yorker I share Moss’s grief and anger at the lost neighborhoods I grew up and have lived in. I too have experienced the sense of entitlement that drives his writing, a feeling that so long as I am here, in this patch of Manhattan, it ought to stay as I know and love it.

Moss’ jeremiad in the Times on Wednesday, “Disney World on the Hudson,” brought back memories of the long-lost mom & pops of my youth: the French bakery around the corner, the children’s clothing shop where I worked as delivery girl through high school, the wonderful bookstore across the street. All are gone today, replaced with high-end fashion boutiques and chain stores. Instinctively I found myself agreeing with Moss’ sentiment, lurching into nostalgia. But his article, published under the pseudonym he regularly writes behind, missed several important points, and the more I thought about it the more troubled I became. And throughout the day, every five minutes or so, the article kept re-arriving in my inbox, sent by some friend or colleague with a subject line like “Harsh” or “Wow.”  One person wrote: “Where does this come from?” [continue reading…]

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Annik La Farge & Rick Darke on the Reading Viaduct in Philadelphia. Photo: Rick Darke

On July 11 my collaborator and friend Rick Darke and I are giving a special walking tour of the High Line. Rick is a renowned landscape ethicist, writer, horticulturist and photographer; he has been photographing and writing about the High Line since 2002, and contributed the preface, several short pieces and a number of photographs to my upcoming book On the High Line: Exploring America’s Most Original Urban Park.

As we walk we’ll talk about the history of the neighborhood — the railroads and port, industry, culture, architecture — and the beautiful “park in the sky” that has become a magnet for visitors from around the world. Rick’s expertise in horticulture and landscape ethics will make this walk a special opportunity to learn about the High Line’s design and its multilayered landscape. If you’re interested in photography, spending time with Rick on the High Line presents a golden opportunity to learn about ways to shoot the park in new and original ways.

Sign up at TheHighLine.org. The walk begins at 6:30 pm on Wednesday, July 11, and will last an hour. Tickets are $15 ($10 for members of Friends of the High Line) and all proceeds help fund the High Line, both today and in the future. The meeting location will be provided in the confirmation email.

On the High Line is available now. Go here for a list of retailer links. To learn about how the High Line went from abandoned railroad to award-winning park, read Joshua David and Robert Hammond’s excellent book High Line: The Inside Story of New York’s Park in the Sky.

See you on the High Line!


The Future of the High Line: All of Us Invited

The High Line we know today — the beautiful “park in the sky — had its beginnings in a community board meeting that took place back in 1999. It was a classically hot, humid August evening in New York and for some reason Joshua David and Robert Hammond both decided that rather than hang out at the beach with a nice cold beer they would attend a meeting about the rusty old elevated railroad that ran up Tenth Avenue. And because they did, and because they met each other at that meeting, we have the High Line.

After I read David & Hammond’s new book High Line, which recounts the long, complex, but always-colorful fight their group Friends of the High Line engaged to save the old trestle, I began to feel that eery sensation you get when you understand that one tiny, seemingly insignificant decision had an invaluable consequence. Tomorrow evening we all have the opportunity to attend a community board meeting about the future of the High Line, and I wouldn’t miss it for anything, even tickets to “The Book of Mormon.”

Hammond will give an update on the still-undeveloped section of the High Line that runs between 30th and 34th Streets, around a working rail yard. (This yard serves as a parking lot for commuter trains that come from New Jersey to Penn Station every day, and is where they cool their jets as the workers are toiling away in Gotham. At the end of the day commuters hop on the train to return home.)  As this section heads west it majestically presents the Hudson River and it’s one of the most breathtaking, inspiring views the High Line has to offer.

Friends of the High Line is hosting this meeting to begin the process of gathering feedback from the community as the group moves forward with the design process of the third and final section of the park. Members of the design team of James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro will be attending, and the community is invited to ask questions.

I wish I could say I had been present at the creation; that on that hot August day I too had schlepped down to Penn South, a coop on Ninth Avenue for moderate-income residents sponsored in the 1950s by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. But tomorrow brings another chance to play a role in this important project. Even if you’re tired and over-stimulated, go for the photos alone; I saw many of them at a talk Hammond gave in October and they’re gorgeous.

Here are the details:

High Line at the Rail Yards Community Input Meeting
Tuesday, December 6
6:30 – 8:00 PM
Public School 11 Auditorium
320 West 21st Street, between 8th and 9th Avenues

You can watch a short video here.


Nine Reasons to Read HIGH LINE

There are as many reasons to admire this book as there are entries to the High Line. So I’ll give you nine.

1. It’s inspirational: a true David and Goliath story, set in post 9/11 New York City, featuring two guys who admit quite charmingly in these pages that they had no idea what they were doing. And they won.

2. It’s spot-on, Zeitgeist-wise: if you’re even remotely interested in the movement of urban landscape design that is sweeping major cities around the world, David & Hammond have just given you the playbook. This book tells the full story of how these two young men, with lots of help from a wide variety of people and over a ten year period, navigated the neighborhood, city, state, corporate, and Federal politics to create this park.

3. It has that magical element that non-fiction readers love: voice. These two guys, in alternating paragraphs, each come across as distinct personalities and as they tell their story we come to know them as individuals. There are other key characters who come alive, including Gifford Miller and the extraordinary Amanda Burden, a woman who has done something I will always be grateful for: she has made New York a better city.

4.  If you love New York…: this a book that will help you understand how and why it works as well as it does under the leadership of Mayor Bloomberg.

5. It’s unsparingly honest. Serious readers know when they’re being jollied along, and these guys give us everything, warts and all: their disagreements, crises of faith and plenty of unpretty moments, like a hangover that could have derailed an important meeting.

6. Marvelous, excruciating detail. Example: Hammond provides the color swatch for the Sherwin-Williams paint color of the High Line’s railings: SW6994. It’s called “Greenblack,” and you too can use it in your own kitchen, just as he did.

7. The photos are gorgeous.

8. It’s a cautionary tale: on every page you marvel that the thing actually got built, that these men didn’t get derailed.

9. The High Line, the glorious “park in the sky.” What’s not to love? Here’s a book that celebrates both the creation — in all its gritty, gnarly detail — and the end result: a park that always inspires, always leaves room for dreaming.

I’ve been writing about the High Line for three and a half years on this blog and I was surprised that I ended up learning something on just about every page of this book. It’s a great story.

Handy Purchasing Links:

Buy HIGH LINE from Posman’s

Buy HIGH LINE from Amazon

Buy HIGH LINE from Powell’s

Buy HIGH LINE from 192 Books

Buy HIGH LINE from BN.com

Buy HIGH LINE from your favorite Indie retailer


Sponsor a Tree on the High Line

Friends of the High Line recently launched a truly inspired fund-raising campaign: Sponsor a Plant. There are more than 100,000 plants in the park, representing 170 species of flowers, 46 kinds of trees, and hundreds of species of grasses, shrubs, vines and bulbs. The now mile-long park requires a huge amount of love and care — pruning, watering, feeding, weeding — and the Friends pay the costs of upkeep.

So today, in the middle of our first Nor’Easter of the Fall season, I adopted a Smokebush. I chose this tree because it’s a shapeshifter and a real drama queen. Throughout the season it changes its shape, color and texture. Today it’s blowin’ in the wind (and battered by the flying slush) but it’s making a great show of its beautiful reddish-purple leaves. Earlier in the season — see the photo below, taken in May — the tree is leggier and it has little fronds that stick out in all directions. It looks like a lady of a certain age sitting under a hair dryer at the beauty salon; all it lacks is last month’s issue of Vogue.

I took a gardening tour of the High Line in the spring and the gardener who escorted my little group described this tree as “Dr. Seussy.” Boy, did she get that right. It’s hard to pass through the Gansevoort Woodland in the middle of May and not break out into hysterical laughter. This is a funny tree, an expressive tree, and a beautiful one too.

You too can sponsor a plant on the High Line. The smokebush Continus ‘Grace’ is a pricey plant (most likely because the High Line has to pay all those licensing fees to the Ted Geisel aka Dr. Seuss estate), but there’s a range of plants available and it includes a wonderful variety:  Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra),  Winterberry,  ‘Red Sprite’ (Ilex verticillata),  the fabulous grass Sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula), thread-leaf bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii) and, last but not least, the Aster oblongifolius, ‘Raydon’s Favorite.’ Over the past few weeks this last plant has been stunning and has pretty much dominated the landscape. Today the asters, like most of the plants, are encased in ice, and as beautiful as ever.

If you love the High Line here’s another great way to support it: sponsor a plant. You’ll be supporting the landscape and also the amazingly great gardening staff that makes this park run day in and day out, through rain and sleet and hail and gloom of night. They’re out in full force today, shoveling slush so the rest of us can enjoy it.

So make yourself a nice cup of tea and do it now: www.TheHighLine.org.

And if you’re town walk (don’t run) to the park because there’s nothing more beautiful than a garden in a storm.