Today is opening day of Spring Cutback on the High Line, the ninth since the park opened in 2009. Visitors marvel at the annual ritual: teams of volunteers from all over city working in shifts through the month of March to cut back the stalks, sticks and branches that dazzled us in a multitude of colors as the seasonal wheel turned through spring, summer, fall and winter. The Cutback is an existential part of the High Line, the result of its design philosophy. Most gardens are clipped and pruned at the onset of Fall when cold weather arrives, but here on the High Line they are left alone to complete the full cycle of their lives. Piet Oudolf, the horticultural artist who created these gardens, believes that plants are interesting and beautiful throughout all the stages of their life, from the soft, bright colors of springtime youth to the dark, spiky textures of a wintry old age. “Dying in an interesting way is just as important as living,” he once said. That’s why every new walk on the High Line is different from the last one. The gardens manifest a constantly changing, vibrantly living — and then, when the time comes, dying — landscape. [continue reading…]
Hey, the past is past, so gather ’round boys. Let’s all raise a glass to last of the West Side Cowboys….
George Hayde, New York’s last urban cowboy, finally has his own song, and it’s rockin’ great. Put that drink down before you click the link because it’s gonna topple with the first chord.
Dave Goddess, who lives on Tenth Avenue, was inspired to write the song after he learned about the 1850s ordinance requiring a man on horseback to precede and follow every train as it made its way up and down the city streets. One day a few friends who were visiting from Denmark insisted he join them on a tour of the High Line. When “the guide told the story I was floored. It’s both surreal and poetic. I tried to imagine the seedy Meatpacking District of 80 years ago with its tenements, prostitutes, and hundreds of slaughterhouses. I invented a backstory about George Hayde and wrote the tune about his last ride. When I was finished I realized that my song was just as much about obsolescence. What does a workingman do when his job goes away because times are changing? It’s a scenario we’re still dealing with today.”
The Dave Goddess Group — Mark Buschi on bass, Tom Brobst on keys and sax, Chris Cummings on drums and Gary Gipson on guitar — just released its new EP. There’s a good interview here about how they work together and Dave’s philosophy of music-making. I didn’t know this band but I’m a new and ardent fan.
And for those looking for more about the West Side Cowboy, this is the link to my tiny documentary made from rare 1930s footage of an actual train — and cowboy — steaming up Tenth Avenue. This link goes to the full story of George Hayde’s final ride. And this one is my own story of first learning about New York’s cowboy from my brother-in-law’s grandfather, Steven Hirsch, who chased trains as a boy and never forgot about it.
I know from this blog’s analytics that a great many people come here looking for dogs on the High Line, and I’m always happy to oblige. Dogs, of course, are not allowed on the High Line, but the one pictured above is a service dog who lives in the neighborhood. I often see this couple at the Chelsea Piers gym and the dog is a very sweet, well-behaved creature who sits quietly and attentively by the swimming pool as her owner swims. (I’m sure the owner is very sweet too, but that’s beside the point; no one comes here searching for “humans on the High Line.”) This is one of Manhattan’s Lucky Dogs; being in service means she has the great privilege of being allowed on the High Line. So if you see this dog you too will be lucky. That’s what dogs do: they spread the luck around. This is why, over the years, I’ve made it a habit to photograph every dog I see the High Line.
I think we could all use a bit of doggy luck these days, so here they are: large ones and small ones, night dogs and day dogs, legal dogs and rule-breakers, making their way through snow and rain and heat and gloom, brought together in one single post for the first time ever. It is without doubt — and I say this in all modesty — the World’s Leading Collection of Dog Photographs on the High Line. That and a subway token, as they say….
Enjoy. But don’t use this as an excuse to bring your dog to the High Line. Dogs are not allowed on the High Line, except those in service.
Who let the dogs in? Woof.
[NOTE: 14 days after this post appeared, Mayor DeBlasio did indeed visit the High Line. Just sayin’.]
Since becoming Mayor of New York Bill DeBlasio has avoided the High Line, and perhaps with good reason. Almost from the moment it opened, the runaway success of Manhattan’s “park in the sky” vaulted it from an innovative, drop-dead gorgeous park into a platform for development by billionaires and “starchitects.” It never fit with DeBlasio’s message about the Other America, so he just stayed away, always promising to visit some day in the future.
The other day I was walking north through the Chelsea Grasslands and a Monarch butterfly flew across my path. It arced east for a moment toward 20th Street, then circled back and disappeared into a cluster of Rudbeckia: orange wings merging with yellow and black flowers, a colorful late morning pollination. It made me think of Mayor DeBlasio, and all that he’s missing out on. The butterfly made me wonder what sort of tour would I take the Mayor on, if and when he decides to pay a visit to the High Line.
Over the past few decades the Monarch has been under tremendous pressure from loss of habitat, climate change, chemicals and pesticides that are sprayed on fields and lawns all over the country, destroying its natural food source. This gorgeous species almost disappeared entirely, and the fact that today you can spot a Monarch on any random walk along the High Line is more than good news: it’s a metaphor for the sanctuary city. This place, basically one long, gigantic green roof filled with a mix of native and exotic plant species, created a safe landing spot for the Monarch and many other creatures: birds, insects, small mammals and the odd human. The butterfly I saw was a tri-color reminder of the values that inform every aspect of the High Line and have done, from the very moment of its conception. Nowadays, more than ever since the park opened in 2009, we need to remember those values. Actually, we need to trumpet them from the rooftops.
I won’t sugar coat it: the High Line is too crowded, development is overwhelming the neighborhood, there are too many super-rich families, locals yield to hoards of tourists, the air is filled with fumes from idling construction vehicles, it’s sometimes noisy and claustrophobic. But the founding dream of the High Line lives on, accessible to anyone taking a stroll through the park.
If I were walking along the High Line with Mr. DeBlasio I’d focus on the values and ideas of this place, rather than its celebrity and iconic status. As we as we huffed up the stairs to the park I’d tell him about that Monarch butterfly, and when we got to the top, I’d direct his attention to the east.
We’re not going to begin at the beginning, Mr. Mayor; we’re going to start in the middle, at 26th Street.
Let’s not gaze north at the elegant spires of the Empire State Building, New York Times headquarters, Condé Nast or Bank of America towers – they are beautiful, sure, but also familiar. We know what they stand for. Let’s look instead straight ahead, at the Elliott-Chelsea Houses. This complex is one of two large public housing projects in the High Line’s ‘hood and, along with the Fulton Houses a few blocks to the south, it plays a vital role in the park. That’s because this place was created for the local community, and Friends of the High Line (FHL), the founding organization that still runs the park, continues to devote a huge amount of energy and resources into developing programs for our neighbors in these apartments. They even invited kids from the projects to create their own social programs, and have developed employment and training opportunities as well. [continue reading…]
An old friend recently wrote a piece on her blog about the place she goes when she wakes up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep: childhood books. Whether it’s Anne of Green Gables, The Borrowers, Pippi, Harriet, Reepicheep, Lad a Dog, Lightfoot the Deer or Whitefoot the Woodmouse, this retreat into a long ago chapter is an engine of escape, the tool that can finally quiet a restless, adult mind.
I was thinking of Beka’s piece when I opened up the new book Dronescapes and found this image of the place where I go in those quiet hours when I can’t, for whatever reason, sleep:
It’s Keyhole Arch at Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur, shot using a drone by Romeo Durscher. It was taken during the Winter Solstice when the sun cuts a particular angle and shines through what looks like a carved doorway in the giant rock just off the shoreline. I’ve photographed this magical spot hundreds of times over the past 20 years, but never during the Solistice. Durscher’s photo has a shamanistic, almost mystical quality, since it captures the figures on the beach in the waning rays of sun as well as the shadows outside them. Is it possible to get such a photo without a drone? Yes, you can clamber up a steep, sandy hill and hope for the best. But there’s something about a drone…
These days, as Dronescapes shows, the size of cameras has shrunk while chip capacity has grown, and suddenly, in the past couple of years, a new form of aerial photography is emerging. But in a weird twist, increased government regulation of drones means that the possibilities are increasing and contracting at the same time. It’s both an exciting and frustrating moment, because the technology is there and prices have come down drastically, but those shots you want to get — of bridges, monuments, cityscapes — are increasingly off limits. Dronescapes is the first coffee table book to give us a look at the state of the art.
Five years ago I tagged along with a High Line gardener on what was then a weekly trip to Staten Island, where the fruits of our Cutback labor were dumped on a giant composting pile in the Fresh Kills landfill. Fresh Kills is a stunningly beautiful place, but the long, bumper-to-bumper, carbon-emitting drive in a panel truck packed with 35-cubic-yard compost bags was not exactly a sustainable operation. The article I published in 2012 was called “The Choreography of the Cutback.”
Wow, have things changed. Today, Friends of the High Line’s horticultural staff remains on Manhattan island and has created an innovative, state-of-the art composting operation in a small but wonderfully efficient area just above the busy traffic of Tenth Avenue. It’s located on a Spur that once served the New York Central Railroad and the National Biscuit Company, also known as Nabisco. Back in the day, boxcars filled with eggs, milk and butter from the American heartland trundled across this Spur and all those raw ingredients made their way into giant ovens that later cranked out Mallomars, Fig Newtons and Animal Crackers. Today, the Spur is home to a fully sustainable composting operation that runs throughout the year, but just under half its output — between 180 – 220 cubic yards — is generated in March, during the annual Spring Cutback. It’s the horticultural circle of life in action, and I had the great pleasure of witnessing the new era of composting on the High Line just five days after participating in the first Cutback shift of 2017.
This is the story of how the High Line’s plants and grasses go from the volunteer’s trug to a beautiful, aromatic compost, ready to return to the garden and nurture the next generation of growth. [continue reading…]