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Goodbye, Lumberyard

During the era of the Industrial Revolution, the way-West Side of Manhattan was exploding with enterprise: ironworks, grain elevators, lard refineries, stockyards, abattoires, printing presses, candle factories and manufacturers of everything from cigars to pianos. The trains of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s New York Central Railroad rumbled up Tenth, Eleventh and Twelfth Avenues, carrying many of these goods north along the Hudson River towards Albany, where they eventually connected with the newly-laid tracks of the Transcontinental Railroad and would make their way to towns and cities across the country.

The machines of the Industrial Revolution ran on steam, and in our neighborhood there were acres of lumberyards with steam-powered sawmills. One of the most common sites, as described by a New York Times reporter who made an excursion through the ‘hood in 1883, was “endless piles of lumber.”  He observed that “the Leaning Tower of Pisa has been copied as nearly as possible in the architecture of these piles.”

In my book about the High Line I described this area as “New York’s Lumberyard,” and there was a factory just half a block from the park on West 22nd Street. I’ve written about ghost signs before on this blog, and the one for “kiln-dried lumber” on the side of a condo known as the Eagle Building has long been one of my favorites. When I moved here a decade ago there was a short, nondescript, brick building occupied by the Balenciaga fashion company. A neighbor on the block used to stand on the loading dock and hurl a tennis ball up the cobblestoned street — then basically (blissfully, I should say) free of vehicular traffic — for his dog to fetch.

542 W. 22nd Street in 2012, © Google Maps

That low-slung building was recently torn down and the lot is now an active construction site. I’ve been photographing the old ghost sign over the past few months as the floors of the new building rise to cover it. Which, floor by floor, they now have done:

542 w. 22 Street, site excavation, July 2017

542 W. 22nd Street, June 2018

542 W. 22nd Street, July 2018

542 W. 22nd Street, 3 days later in July 2018

542 W. 22nd Street, August 2018

Adieu, friendly ghost sign.

 

 

 

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Consolations

The ubiquity of construction along the High Line and all its attendant noise, fumes, shadows, blocked views and dark spaces have been disconcerting for some years now. New projects large and small have transformed this once quiet, meditative place into an alley of incessantly loud, commercial energy. Real estate, New York City’s oldest business, is flourishing everywhere you look. The little surprises that made the High Line such a delightful place have slowly faded into the background of shiny, zesty new architecture.

But every so often you get lucky, and it happened to me this evening. It was a crazy windy day in New York. There were little waves on the Hudson River — a surfer’s paradise for small, watery creatures. On the High Line, which is always windier than street level, it was like being in a rainless squall. I was walking toward Gansevoort Street and just as I emerged from the 14th Street Passage there was a wonderful cacophony coming from the construction site at 40 Tenth Avenue. It was a little orchestra of clanging tones generated haphazardly by the the metal ends of those straps that hang from ceilings in construction sites nowadays. They were flailing around, hitting each other and making little bell-like sounds, sometimes in unison, sometimes in crazy rhythms that you might hear in a jazz club. This video captures just a moment or two:

There’s a story about Dave Brubeck that Stuart Isacoff tells in his book A Natural History of the Piano. Brubeck was famous for his improvisations in unorthodox meters, and according to Isacoff, his childhood experiences growing up on a 45,000 acre ranch were the source of his weird time signatures. When “your father sends you to fix a fence or start an engine, you are alone,” Brubeck recalled. “The sound of those little gas engines—Chu Chu Chu! Gitcha! Gitcha! Bu Ah Uh!—you never knew what they were going to do next. And when the horse would bring me somewhere, there was no one to talk to. So I became aware of the gait of the horse.” Isacoff says “He simply tuned in to all the rhythmic play going on around him.”

Somewhere in New York City, now that the sun has set and the night is young, a musician is channeling the weird beauty of a construction site along the High Line.

That’s a consolation.

 

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Marching for Their Lives — in 1908

One hundred and ten years ago 500 children “no bigger than the flags they carried” marched against a danger to themselves and helped make life safer for other kids.

The march was held on Saturday, October 24, 1908 in response to the gruesome death of a 7-year old named Seth Low Hanscamp. According to the Times, he was playing “Follow My Leader” with a group of friends, climbing on and over the cars of a freight train that had stopped in the middle of 35th Street and 11th Avenue, in violation of city law. Neither the conductor nor the brakemen were in their proper places when the train started up again and Seth fell beneath the wheels and was crushed. Nevertheless, the city coroner exonerated the train crew and blamed the accident on the child. According to one report, 198 young people were killed by trains on Tenth and Eleventh Avenues — collectively known as “Death Avenue” — over a ten year period beginning in 1888. During the darker afternoons in November, December, and January, there were on average three deaths of school children per month. According to the New York Times, many of them were crossing the train tracks in order to carry dinner to their fathers at work.

That night in 1908 the kids marched mostly in silence and carried placards demanding that all freight trains be prohibited from their city streets.

The effort to completely remove street-level trains from Manhattan would take another four decades, and it began in earnest with Robert Moses’ 1920s plan for the West Side Improvement. That master scheme included construction of the High Line, the elevated freight viaduct that was designed, in part, to get those long, dangerous trains off the street. It operated from 1934 to 1980, and is today a world-class park.

Young Seth was named for a New York City Mayor, Seth Low, who held office between 1901-1903. His promising life was cut short in a tragic accident, but his friends rallied in the streets to bring major change, resisted by legions of grownups, that would end up saving the lives of scores of other children after him.

It worked.

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Rocket Men

High Line Innovators: Nathan Bartholomew & Kaspar Wittlinger

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…]

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Song of the Urban Cowboy

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.

 

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The Secret Dogs of the High Line

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.

[continue reading…]

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