The art exhibit by Spencer Finch, “The River That Flows Both Ways,” is one of my favorite parts of the High Line and today I discovered something I hadn’t noticed before. Again, I thank the camera, which caught something my eyes didn’t see on their own: the reflection of the building just opposite the colored glass windows.
One of the things I love about the High Line is the multitude of windows you see while walking along, everything from cracked, bricked-up windows with bullet-holes on old industrial buildings to the undulating curves of the IAC building. And in the Standard Hotel there’s a “window” cut in the eastern footing of the building that looks onto other windows: Windows on windows. So I shouldn’t have been surprised to see the reflection of yet more windows in Spencer Fitch’s exhibit.
Another thing I admire about “The River That Flows Both Ways” is the fact that every time I photograph it it looks different. Just like the river itself it can’t be nailed down. It keeps changing depending on how the light is falling, where you’re standing, what time of day it is, what season of year, and what the weather is like. I find the changeableness of this exhibit oddly comforting because it’s so perfectly reliable.
The Algonkins, the people who first settled in New York Harbor, named what we now call the Hudson (after the English sea captain) “the river that flows both ways.” They were stunned when they first saw it, a river with currents that flow north and south at the same time. You can see it yourself; just stand on a pier or lean up against a railing along the Greenway. I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else; it’s just fascinating and confounding.
That’s what Spencer Finch’s exhibit captures: the movement and changing patterns of this great river. You can read about his project here, and see a photo that looks nothing like mine. I hope the High Line folks make this wonderful exhibit a permanent feature of the park.
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.
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.
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.