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The Highline

Perfect High Line Weather

With rain and thunder in the forecast it’s a perfect day for the High Line.

Many folks complain about the crowds in the park. Now that spring has arrived (in theory, at least) there are scads of people there and it’s only going to get more crowded once the new section opens.

On really rainy days the die-hards come out. Pass them by and you might get a subtle nod, like guys on motorcycles who flash their lights at fellow bikers traveling in the opposite direction. Yeah, cool, you’re here too. Nice day for a walk.


To see a World in a blade of grass…

(With apologies to William Blake….)

As the opening of the second section of the High Line draws near I offer a tiny, easy-to-miss piece of nostalgia for hard-core lovers of this “meadow in the sky.” The single blade of grass you see in the photo above grows at the southern-most portion of the original High Line on Bank and Washington Streets. Trains pulled through what was then the Bell Telephone Laboratory, the largest industrial research center in the world — TV was invented here as was radar and the transistor — and would continue on a few more blocks to the St. John’s Park Terminal at Spring Street. Today the building is Westbeth, an artist’s community. I used to spend a lot of time here as a kid with friends of my dad’s. It’s a very cool building, though it seems to have shrunk since I was a teenager.

This stalk of grass is most likely a volunteer that hitched a ride from the prairies of the midwest on a train that was headed to New York City. (Is anybody else hearing Arlo Guthrie right about now?)  Or maybe the seed it sprang from dropped from the beak of a bird’s mouth as it was flying south. Who knows? Piet Oudolf, the great Dutch plantsman who designed the modern High Line, filled the park with many kinds of prairie grass that are native to North America — classic John Wayne stuff — but also grasses from the United Kingdom, Europe, South America and North Africa. Everything you see in the park today was planted recently, but many of the varieties were “self-sewn” over the decades that the rail line operated, from 1934 to 1980. I bet this Bell Labs/Westbeth blade of grass sewed itself. Maybe someone out there can identify it.  Meantime, we can gaze up and give it a little salute, because this single stalk, a hardy New York City native that grows — even thrives — between metal and concrete, stands for much of what’s great about the High Line and the city it traverses.

Long may it wave.

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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.


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.


What the Camera Lets us See

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how the act of taking a picture — I don’t want to call it “photography” since what I’m doing is so much below the standard of art and more a gesture of observation and record-keeping — can engage a person with a subject. This has been on my mind since I encountered the Hipstamatic app (thanks to photographer Scott Mlyn) which puts a moody scrim around a photo. You never know what the picture will look like because the app itself is moody: it changes from snap to snap, so it’s quite unpredictable. It results in a much more voicey photo because the app expresses its voice alongside yours.

The New York Times just published a photo essay by Damon Winter of pictures taken of the war in Afghanistan with the iPhone and Hipstamatic app. In the Intro. they talk about how gear shouldn’t matter — “few people care about what kind of typewriter Hemingway used” — but Winter chose to use his phone for good and interesting reasons, and the photos are gorgeous. If you haven’t seen them check out the Lens blog. Four of them made the front page of the printed paper — above the fold. (Side note: I’m actually quite passionate about typewriters too, and on another occasion will write about manual Smith Coronas and new-fangled IBM Selectrics.)

Anyway, I just love Hipstamatic, so have been shooting with it every day for a couple of weeks now. That in turn unleashed an ambition to mix things up again, so I co-opted Ann’s Leica M-8 and began shooting in black & white. The Leica relies on a split-image focus mechanism, something I’m familiar with from using my dad’s old Leica IIIf, and that itself is a big change. (Hipstamatic, of course, has no focus; my Nikon D80 — which I’ve used for many of the photos on this blog — has an autofocus, which I now think I rely on too much.)

I don’t know what it is about black & white but I’m finding that it makes everything look more elegant.  Maybe it’s because everything in our culture is so loud, bright, and colorful. Black & white is like the mute button, and it encourages us to contemplate from another, quieter, perspective. In its own way — through unpredictable distortion — Hipstamatic also provides another angle to see and observe.

The High Line is a great place to test out these ideas and play around with them. If I were a better photographer the results would be more satisfying, no doubt. But the technology — the old and the new — opens doors for me, which is ultimately what I love about technology.


Hipstamatic Spaniel

I’m not the only one who stares out the window and dreams of walks to come. Bucky joins me, and I know he’s as buoyed as I am by the language on the signs that are posted by each entrance to our matchless elevated park: “No Dogs on the High Line….Yet.”

All it takes is one little word to put a spring (or a Springer) in our collective step.

(For more dogs on the High Line see here.)


Trees in a Wilderness of Concrete

I don’t know a single New Yorker who’s not amazed by the trees that grow all over the city, popping up through the sidewalks, poking their branches against the windows of brownstones. (Side note: I’ve always loved those wonderful grates made by the Neenah Foundry. I have a friend named Neenah who was named after the company. If you visit their website you can browse all the different “collections” they have for tree grates.)

All this came to mind after I looked out the window this morning and beheld trees on the High Line. From here they look like Douglas Fir, but it’s hard to tell. (Nice thing about the High Line: no deer!). The construction guys — or maybe they’re from the nursery, it’s hard to know because they all wear hard hats — are getting ready for planting. Finally, amid all the cement and rebar, the plants are arriving. It’s great to see, particularly now that The Condo is eight storeys high and climbing. We’ve lost our view of the Con Ed building’s cupula, and the water towers across the street, on the London Towers complex, are just about to disappear too.

But we have trees! And that puts me in a fine mood.


Another Day, Another Story

So work proceeds. I’m baffled by the pace of construction projects. There are dramatic phases that go so fast — like adding an entire floor, which took just a few weeks at Our New Neighborhood Condo next door — and then long, interminable lulls where nothing seems to happen. (Wallboard installation, probably. Very boring.) A notable consequence of this “progress” is the loss of The Rat. He is now shielded from my view by the emerging 3rd floor of the condo, but I know he’s there because the horns continue to honk (labor guys in solidarity) and every time I cross 10th Avenue I have to wade through a mass of listless men drinking coffee and hanging about.

Lest we forget, here is Mr. Rat, with his friends.

Meantime, progress continues on the High Line. You can see hints of it in the photo above, but you have to look hard to discern the greenery that has been planted along the eastern edge of the pavers. Evergreens, grasses and little shrubs sit quietly in place between the concrete and iron. It’s still quiet down there on my little patch of unconstructed High Line, but periodically a man walks by and tips his hat to The Rat, or a new machine appears (see above; this one has its own little mat). The view from the northernmost spot that’s open to the public — on 20th Street, looking north through the chain link fence — is more promising, and shows the tremendous progress that has been made. Any day now I expect to look out my window and see an actual park emerging. I took the photo to the right with my phone, so it’s not great, but you see what I mean.

One of the things I love about the High Line is how it reveals all the new architecture in our neighborhood. There’s the tilting glass building on 23rd Street — you can see it in the distance, to the left (west) in this photo — for one. But walk along the High Line and you see it everywhere, above, below, and to either side. New buildings that curve (IAC) or dance with their colored panes of glass (the new Jean Nouvel building) look out over (but never seem to tower above) older ones. The red roof of the old Guardian Angel School building, which sits across the street from Clement Moore Park (and the fabulous 192 Books) is an anchor in time. Every time I walk along the High Line I see something new, or I see something old differently. Watching it unfold before me is a wonder.


The High Line is a puzzle

I first noticed this piece of concrete decking on September 15, 2009, which is when I photographed it. It was lying along the portion of the park that runs north of 14th Street — probably around 16th or so.

It was the first time I realized how complex a system the contractor has worked out to ensure that each piece of the High Line puzzle ends up in the right place. The concrete pilings on the under-construction portion are also clearly labeled — see here. I’ll try to capture as much of this system as I can going forward. I’m sure I’ll never understand it, but it’s fun to know it exists: that every panel you walk on, and every rail you observe amongst the grasses, has a unique number inscribed on it. Maybe, once deciphered, all these number add up to a code that contains the answer to all our questions about the mysteries of the Universe…


Ghostly High Line

I walked down the High Line tonight to pick Ann up and have a bite. To my surprise and delight, it was glowing blue. The iPhone doesn’t quite do it justice.

I saw barely anyone, as it was raining outside. But there’s a hard core High Line visitor who’s undeterred by weather. Passing these folks I get the feeling that I imagine motorcyclists do when they pass each other on the highway; you see them flicking their lights or giving a more subtle, half-high-five. So that’s what rainy High Liners do too: a slight tip of the head or a raised finger if there’s a free hand. “Hey, you’re here too. Isn’t it great without the crowds?”

I shook myself dry in the tunnel, then continued on, very happy indeed.