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The High Line in Winter

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General Theological Seminary

General Theological Seminary

The blast of winter early this week was the most beautiful of the year. The snow was dense and heavy, and unlike the powder of recent storms, it hung around for a few days. It attached itself to everything, even the stone cross on the roof of the Guardian Angel Church. Blanketing entire trees — trunks, branches, twigs — it had a wonderful effect of erasure: you could barely see the buildings or skyline through the thick lines of white that crisscrossed every view from the street. And unlike our many previous storms, this stuff stayed white much longer than the typical New York City snowfall. In a hellacious winter, this was our magical moment.

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[As always, click to enlarge an image.]

Walking past General Theological Seminary on Monday night you could almost imagine it was the 1820s. In a flicker of gaslight, perhaps that dark figure who just brushed past you was Clement Clark Moore himself, father of Chelsea who long ago donated his apple field to the Episcopal Church.

I crossed over Tenth Avenue — the Hudson River’s eastern edge in Moore’s day, now a slushy artery built on landfill — and up above me appeared a winter forest. Somewhere along that elevated expanse a High Line Ranger was gingerly walking along the path, making his final rounds to close up the park. [continue reading…]

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Frozen Park in the Sky

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This photo doesn’t show how bone-chillingly cold it was on the High Line today. It doesn’t show the million-mile-per-hour wind or the stinging sensation of thousands of snowflakes dive-bombing your eyeballs. There were just a few hardy souls in the park today, but they were stalwarts for sure.

That woman in the photo took off her gloves after she passed underneath the Standard Hotel to take a photograph of Pier 54. Her fingers are probably still numb, but I bet the shot was worth it.

Hey, if you’re one of those whingers who’s always complaining about how crowded the High Line is, get off your duff! A small army of volunteers will be assembling early tomorrow morning to clear the snow, and it’ll be jaw-droppingly beautiful up there by the time you arrive. And bone-chillingly cold.

Bring your camera!

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The Slow Park

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The High Line once again has the “disappearing railroad blues,” having closed to visitors earlier this morning because a sheet of ice descended on New York City in the wake of last week’s snow storm.

The High Line is our Slow Park. For visitors, it exerts an almost gravitational force, slowing their pace and opening up vistas for observation and enjoyment. You often see people walking hand-in-hand, an old-fashioned activity that’s difficult in the narrow, crowded, fast-moving streets below.

It’s also the Slow Park in another sense: it takes a long time to clear it of snow and ice. Friends of the High Line designed and built the park with a commitment to ideas about sustainability and greenness, and that sensibility permeates virtually every aspect of the place, from the gardens to the food program. It also means they use no chemicals to speed the process of snow removal. Everything is cleared the old-fashioned way, by hand or just by time: the number of hours it takes for the air to warm and the ice to melt.

The streets of New York City are an appalling mess today, and it’s not just the snow and the ice: it’s the dismal chemical stew that results from endless amounts of de-icing products. Why are we so addicted to these awful chemicals and the noisy, fume-spewing machines that building staffs use in concert with them, to rapidly clear the snow and ice? Because we are in a hurry to have our streets back, to move quickly again, without impediment. When I was a kid, back in the olden days, we shoveled everything — snow, ice and slush — by hand, through the entire cycle of a snowstorm. When we were done we tossed a bit of old-fashioned rock salt onto the sidewalk and resolved to walk slowly for a few days, until things returned to normal. Today, in our rapacious quest to make up for lost time and move ever faster, we consign our city streets — and, down the line, our rivers and harbor — to a slurry of black, poisonous goo.

So when the High Line reopens — maybe tomorrow, maybe the next day — take a slow walk in a miraculous place, and tip your hat (if it’s not too cold) to the army of gardeners, staff, and volunteers who, along with Father Time, will get the park open just as soon as possible.

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The Radial Bench, Liberated

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The “radial bench” is one of my favorite features on the High Line. A long — it extends for a full city block, between 29th – 30th Streets — sinuous bench, it always reminds me of the law of nature pronounced by the great urban writer and scholar of open spaces William “Holly” Whyte:  “People tend to sit where there are places to sit.” The designers of the High Line took Whyte’s commandment — make the place sittable — to heart, and throughout the park visitors find what he would call “an amiable miscellany” of places to perch: “peel-up” benches, stadium seats, deck-style lounges, a lawn, French bistro chairs. In section three at the Rail Yards, currently under construction, there are various new iterations of the peel-up bench to look forward to, including a see-saw.

This week’s snowstorm was an event made for promenading, not sitting, but regular visitors will rejoice in the fact that the construction shed that covered the entire bench for a year has finally come down. Now you can sit with your coffee, your newspaper or your sweetheart (or all three!) and enjoy the light and views that make this such a great spot.

 

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A Perfect High Line Day

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It’s cold outside, 19 degrees according to my weather app, but on the windy High Line it’s colder still. And yet: what a perfect day to be here. The sky is a painter’s cerulean blue, and the sun is bright. It angles its light across the park, making the grasses tawny and casting beautiful shadows across the pavement.

And the park is empty, but for a few hardy souls. It’s also quiet, because many of the ubiquitous construction crews seem to have found indoor projects.  On days like this I remember that the High Line is our park — a neighborhood place where you can pop by for a quick, enjoyable walk in the middle of a busy day.  It’s going to be like this through the week, lucky us.

 

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Cold, Clear Nights on the High Line


Lately the High Line has been particularly magical at night. These frigid evenings seem to bring out only the hardiest of souls, and so the place is wonderfully lonely. As the sun sets the lights in the park pop on, but as you’ll notice they are all below eye level, so the light doesn’t really announce itself, and it never gets in your eyes. It shines a glow on the sleeping plants and grasses, dances shadows through the art deco rails, and provides just enough brightness to light your path. The High Line designers clearly spent as much time contemplating light in the park as they did everything else.

One thing I realized on a visit last week is that the Jean Nouvel building — the one just to the north of the IAC “sail building” — still has very few tenants (or maybe they all live in Paris and Oslo), so the windows remain dark. Which lends the IAC building pride of place, at least for a little longer. I love both of these buildings and think they work gorgeously together: the combination of smooth, seemingly rounded glass surfaces of the IAC against the cut glass, recessed, multi-colored spectacle of the Nouvel. It’s one of those happy flukes of architecture when two very different, modern, buildings go up side-by-side and the beautiful and startling results appear to have been planned precisely in advance.

The architectural viewscape of the High Line changes constantly, month by month — as new buildings go up — but also hour by hour with the orbit of the sun. If you spend some time walking the park at dusk you’ll see what I mean, and be sure to walk in both directions because the view is quite different heading north and south. If you get up there soon, before the weather warms up (if it ever does) you might find yourself alone, as I did, fingers frozen against the camera shutter.

At the southern end, near the Gansevoort steps, you have a treat in store as you walk through the grove of birch trees. It’s like a little gallery in an art museum: one room filled with handsome young trees, lit just so. But unlike a museum, if you come back the next morning it’ll look completely different. The park is always lovely at night, but these windy, freezing, winter evenings offer up all kinds of new views and discoveries.


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What “Keeping it Wild” Really Means

Here’s something new I learned today about the High Line: they don’t use commercial salt products to melt ice on the pavements. It’s easy to understand why: the surface of the park is carefully crafted from stone, cement, asphalt, wood and steel: all surfaces that would quickly degrade in the presence of chemicals, to say nothing of all the plants, frozen though they may be. (To paraphrase Bob Dylan: they ain’t dead, they’re just asleep…) This is why the park was closed this morning until about 11:00 am: the staff was up there hacking away at the ice.

The first worker I spoke with told me “we don’t use salt,” which is a bit of an exaggeration because I did see what looked like rock salt on the pathways. What she meant, I think, is they don’t use that dreadful chemical product that is now ubiquitous all over New York City and comes in tiny white pebbles made of  calcium chloride, potassium chloride, and sodium chloride. It works quickly, sparing businesses, homeowners and superintendents the need to break a sweat, but it turns the streets into black, oily, fields of gloom.  Some day deep in the future we’ll learn that these chemicals, leached by the acre into the Hudson River, killed multiple species of fish and plankton and who knows what else.

Meantime, our friends up on the High Line are doing it the old-fashioned way: by hand, with tiny amounts of rock salt and sand to help ensure that people don’t fall and break their necks. It was worth missing a morning stroll. This is real husbandry of a public space, wonderful to see, even if it means we have to wait a few hours for the privilege.

And if you can, get there today or tomorrow so you can see the frozen waves of snow that are caught in ice. They cast a sheen that varies in color depending on where the sun is sitting and it’s positively gorgeous. Just take it slow and steady.


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Stairway to Heaven



This picture conveys little of the romance and glory of the High Line, and that’s all right with me. Soon — spring? — it will be cleaned up and elegant: a stairway to our little piece of heaven in Manhattan. But today it’s a work-in-progress, barricaded by plywood boards with Bills Posted. If you stand in the spot where I did when I took this photo — 23rd Street between 10th & 11th, on the south side of the street just under the High Line — and you wriggle your head in just the right way you’ll get a swell surprise. I won’t spoil it for you, but fellow fans of Charles Kuralt will recognize it immediately. Hint here.

And what do we have to look forward to? A lovely patch of lawn has appeared outside my window. Many of you will have read the stories in the Times about the northern stretch of the High Line and how its design is so different from the southern part. There are photos here and also on the official High Line blog, where they actually show a photo of my building taken from the new lawn (ours is the one with all the graffiti). Here’s my view, taken today during Snowstorm #2:



And here it is between storms, looking more lawn-like. I can just picture the lounging folks who will crowd that soon-to-be green carpet during the summer, sipping cups of coffee and reading their books. I look forward to the sound of a lawn mower outside my city window.

But for now it remains a quiet, deserted spot, a lawn-to-be. I’m treasuring these moments.


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