I have left town for a week — my first vacation of the year, and much-needed — and find myself in my own garden pulling weeds. It’s very quiet here on a small mountain along the Hudson River in Columbia County. Frequently a train goes by and toots its horn. If it’s a big one — a long CSX freight train — I can even feel it rumbling through the house. “The rhythm of the rails,” as Steve Goodman wrote in “City of New Orleans.” Cue Arlo Guthrie.
As I was weeding this morning, before a thunder storm rolled in, I was thinking about that other rail bed down south, and it occurred to me that one of the most striking features of the High Line is how quiet it is. For the two years that Section Two was under construction we worried about the noise that would come from thousands of people passing by our windows. I heard that around 35,000 walked through the park during the Gay Pride weekend.
But it’s completely, astonishingly, quiet down there.
There’s something about the High Line that not only slows people down but quiets them too. In two years I’ve never heard anyone screaming into a cellphone. Today, people who sit on the lawn seem to speak in whispers; there are buildings all around us to amplify the sound but I’ve not yet overheard a single conversation. No radios or boom boxes. Occasionally a small child shrieks in joy but that’s always a welcome interruption.
Of course it wasn’t this way when the trains were running. In 2003 a woman named Patricia Fieldsteel described in The Villager what it was like when she moved into an apartment near Gansevoort Street.
“Slightly before 2:50 a.m. the building began to quiver and shake: an unearthly shrill series of screeches, wheezings and the rattlings of Brobdingnagian chains seemed headed straight for the window by my bed. I groped for my glasses and peered out between the dusty slats of the Venetian blinds. A decrepit freight train was creeping out of the south side of the Manhattan Meat & Refrigeration Warehouse across the street. Huge refrigerated trucks were parked along Washington St., their motors running, spewing noxious fumes that were already seeping through my closed windows. Then the raw steer carcasses started to roll and the odor of blood and hacked-apart flesh mixed with the other charming aromas. The High Line was making its deliveries….”
The High Line is more connected to the city itself than any other park in New York, running as it does right through the middle of busy streets and up along the avenue. And yet it’s so startlingly quiet. It’s possible that this is the effect that great and beautiful design has on us. It’s humbling to walk through such a lovely place, particularly when you’re surrounded by reminders of a complex society, both industrial and technological, on both sides and at every step along the way. It’s a place that allows you to slow down and think.
I’m glad that the people who run the park are closing it early on days when there are massive crowds downtown. Whatever the reason, the effect is that it preserves this idea of the High Line as a place apart. It’s not a spot for partying and ballyhoo — there are tons of great places to go for that. It’s the quiet park, and somehow — at least so far — the millions of people who pass through it every year seem to appreciate that.