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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.



The Funny Thing About Landfill

These guys are swimming on land. Or, more precisely, on landfill.

Workers in the Hudson River on 50th Street

Men working in the Hudson River/59th Street

And, on an unseasonably warm December day, they seemed to be enjoying themselves as they went about their business repairing giant piles that help support a roadway that’s shared (and not always so nicely) by joggers, bikers, bladers, pedestrians, baby strollers, cars and giant garbage trucks on West 59th Street. Let me illustrate this spot a bit more clearly:

West 59th Street, courtesy Google Maps

West 59th Street, courtesy Google Maps

I was riding my bike downtown when I stopped to see what was going on.  After being told about the pile repair, I remarked that we humans are re-asserting our claim to this patch of “land” once occupied by the Hudson River. One of the workers replied that the Hudson River was actually the one doing the reclaiming. It was, after all, part of its watery domain before we came along and started filling in the edge of our prosperous island. Have another look at the same spot, courtesy of Oasis, the mapping organization that works in cooperation with the Center for Urban Research at CUNY to provide the richest source of community maps for New York City (as always, click an image to enlarge it):

Manhattan Island with the 1609 shoreline. Courtesy of Oasis & the Mannahatta Project.

Manhattan Island with the 1609 shoreline. Courtesy of Oasis & the Mannahatta Project.

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The High Line: Past, Present and Future


Here’s a picture that’s worth a thousand words: the High Line past (rusty old viaduct); present (restored railing with its modern light fixture on top); and future (one set of pipe-rails painted and signs of construction all around).  The northern end of the park is a flurry of activity, both on the High Line and on the streets below.  But the fading sunlight still manages to find its way between all the new buildings that are rising faster than seems possible, with their giant cranes constantly circling overhead. You just have to be there at the precise moment to snap your shutter before it’s gone.


The Feisty Tenement

501 West 29th Street, standing defiant

A couple of weeks ago my cousin Antoinette and I took a walk along the High Line. When we arrived at the construction scaffolding that now overstretches the park at 30th Street, I pulled out my phone and showed her the photograph above, which I had taken almost exactly a month earlier from the roof of the Ohm apartment tower on Eleventh Avenue. At the time I thought I was taking a photo of the green roof — now white with snow — atop the Morgan Mail Facility, one of my favorite buildings along the High Line. But when I got home and downloaded the picture I noticed something poignant and surprising that I hadn’t seen when I composed the shot on the windy rooftop: that former tenement at 501 West 29th Street, standing defiant and alone with a huge crane looming above its roof. When Antoinette and I arrived at this spot on December 7, the new construction had already reached beyond the second floor of tenement; it was storming past the north-facing windows of the dwelling’s inhabitants as it went.

A mixed-media artist who’s deeply fascinated by the role of fiction in art, Antoinette immediately thought of Roland Barthes and his book Camera Lucida. That tenement, she commented, is the element Barthes would have called “the punctum”: the detail that jumps out from the main subject of a photograph and surprises us. That tenement is what this photograph is really about: a group of Manhattan residents who apparently said Hell no, we won’t go, even as their windows disappeared and a concrete behemoth rose up beside them.

Below is a photo of 501 W. 29th Street that I took today from the High Line.

29th Street Tenement on December 17

When I got there, a light was on in the top-floor apartment, which is just hours away from being completely subsumed by the new construction. I found the scene heartbreaking, and what passed through my mind were Romeo’s last words in the crypt: “Eyes, look your last.” Maybe that seems overly dramatic, but my relationship to this place has always been something of a love story, so I’m going to let it stand.

Indeed, this is a dramatic moment in our neighborhood, though it’s by no means a unique one. I walked from stem to stern along the High Line today and counted 11 active construction projects in immediate proximity to the park, meaning I could land a baseball right in their middle of their work space.*

I try to take the long view about the extraordinary pace of change we are seeing in this area. (See here my response to Jeremiah Moss’ controversial piece in the New York Times about the High Line’s role in the changing landscape of West Chelsea.) But Barthes-like, my camera caught another truth hiding in plain sight: the huge advertising banner on the Morgan — the first in an apparent series — speaks to an irony that the residents of 501 West 29th Street surely know best of all. We are not sleeping easy here; on the contrary, this rampant change is what keeps many of us up at night.

I don’t know much about the history of 501 West 29th Street. I suspect that this structure, like so many other 19th century tenements along the waterfront, once housed the families of men who worked in the maritime trades: blacksmiths, ropemakers, riggers, haulers, carpenters. This area was, as Kevin Bone described in his excellent book The New York Waterfront: Evolution and Building Culture of the Port and Harbor, “a horizontal city of pier sheds and terminals, of railroad structures and industrial facilities…It was a gateway village between the metropolis and the sea. For many, this tidewater frontier town was the only New York they knew. It had its own hotels, bars, and brothels, as well as at least one floating church.” There were also iron works, foundries, lumberyards and factories in the blocks around 501 West 29th Street, and buildings like this are where the workers lived. There are still a few former tenements left along the High Line — including two on opposite sides of 17th Street and Tenth Avenue — but they are coming down fast. Some of these buildings have perfectly marvelous architectural details that one never really noticed from the street; today, from the High Line, we can all appreciate what was once a private architectural museum for train conductors of the New York Central Line.

In a 2010 forum about the High Line at CUNY’s Graduate Center the writer Malcolm Gladwell quoted someone who said that a great university is a place with “an engineered capacity for surprise.”  This quality remains, for me, the enduring and abiding joy of the High Line. I visit the park almost every day, sometimes more than once; every time I go there I observe something I haven’t seen or noticed before. Every visit presents some sort of surprise, large or small. Today was no different, except I didn’t love what I was observing for the first time: the fact that you can now hear a constant thrum of construction from one end of the park to another. Even in a city this big, it seems unusual that you could walk for an entire mile and hear — uninterrupted — the sound of building: jackhammers, beeping tractors, scratchy voices emanating from distant walkie-talkies, whistles and toots, the sounds of men barking orders. Up and down the Line, from 30th Street to Gansevoort, this is the unabating soundtrack during business hours.

And yet: birds land on railings and tweet (the old-fashioned way). Babies cry, taxis honk, helicopter rotors whirl. The bells at General Theological Seminary call a community to worship. Yes, the city’s growth overwhelms us; it creeps past our windows and changes the way the light falls in our rooms, and therefore our lives. But as Gladwell also remarked in the CUNY talk, “this is the business we are in.” This is what we do in New York, and in all great cities: we engineer change. We can only hope that the surprises we encounter will be, for the most, meaningful or at least interesting.

In the meantime, get thee to the High Line and appreciate the views that are disappearing so fast.

501 West 20th, with a copy of “Love The One You’re With” near the front door


* Note: due to a recent a shoulder injury I’ve had to teach myself to throw lefty, so my range is about 75% of what it used to be, but I DO NOT throw like a girl. In my count I have not included the half-dozen projects that are clearly out of my range: those that are either east of Tenth Avenue, like the new Seminary condos, or closer to Eleventh Avenue, like the one near Edward Tufte’s gallery. But Derek Jeter could hit ’em! Also note: I’m not counting sites that have been cleared and are ready for construction, only those where there are men at work. I counted the Whitney Museum and the new headquarters for Friends of the High Line as two separate projects


I’ve been preparing myself for the transition from construction site to park. I was basically ready to say goodbye to the good old days of guys in hard hats and welcome the throngs of tourists who are about to replace them.

But then I look out the window and what do I see? Guys in hard hats erecting a scaffold.

So something’s up, though I have no idea what.

One thing I’d like to note, in these waning days of construction-guy appreciation. Take a look at those stanchions (click on the image if you want to enlarge it). When did you ever see building materials laid out so artistically? These guys are impeccable.

Meantime, there’s a lawn to be mowed.


Coffee Break on the High Line

There’s not a tremendous amount of work being done on our section of the emerging High Line, but it’s clearly a nice spot for a coffee break.

There are several things that interest me about this scene: the activity of the condo guys vs. the relaxing High Line guys who are, after all, sitting in a park. Yeah, it’s not complete yet, but the High Line crew choose to take their coffee in their workspace, whereas the condo guys never do. Maybe because the Rat is watching. And because they’re not building an awesomely cool park, they’re building yet another nameless condo.

This is also a classic New York scene: new apartment building goes up with an old (landmark) building behind it (London Towers) and another modern one (I don’t think it has a name) just across the way. When the renovation of my building (the Spears, a former furniture factory) was completed there was an empty lot where that red brick condo with the balconies now stands. Our neighbors, when they moved in ten years ago, had a nice, clear view to the north across 23rd Street, and lovely evening light from the west.  Soon we’ll all be hemmed in by the Rat Condo to the east, and our view of London Towers will be completely gone. But at least we’ll have the High Line in-between, a small strip of green amidst the concrete towers. Think of all the coffee that will be enjoyed there in years to come.


A Club Sandwich Made of Cement

The other day I looked out the window and gasped at the progress that has been made, seemingly overnight. The crew has already begun work on the fifth floor of the condo next door. Ann joined me at the window, glanced out, and replied: “yeah, it’s kind of like a club sandwich — nothing to it, really.”

Meanwhile (I feel compelled to say this…) all is quiet on the High Line. But hope springs eternal.


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 Slow Dance

It’s impossible to know the slow choreography that’s involved in a building project unless you happen to witness it unfolding. Strolling through a park — take, for example, the High Line — you’d never guess at the number of steps that have been taken before the ground you walk on is complete.

This was made manifest to me today as I glanced out the window and watched two men at work, moving pavers. Here’s what I think is going on: the large stack of pavers in the foreground has been sitting in that spot for quite some time, and was placed there — on the west side of the High Line — so the men could lay track on the east side. Now, it appears, they are moving each paver — one by one, slowly, gingerly — to get them out of the way so they can prepare the bed that the stack lies on. That bed will become the walkway that hundreds of people pass along each day once this segment of the park is opened.  The process takes about 5 minutes per paver, and unfolds thusly:

Guy #1 climbs the stack and lassos the paver that’s scheduled to move. He steps to the side and levels the concrete beam, gently steering it eastward.







Then he hops down from his pile and points the beam ahead of him, and begins to walk north along the High Line.







The yellow machine follows at a leisurely pace, carrying the brunt of the load. They disappear from my view pretty quickly, and I have no way of knowing where this beam and its fellows ends up.







But about 10 minutes later the two men heave back into view, this time driving the yellow machine in reverse. They repeat the process, following exactly the same steps, until the pile is gone.







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A Railroad Emerges


I’ve been very busy and haven’t visited the actual High Line in a couple of weeks. Yesterday some good friends were in town so I accompanied them, and I got a real surprise when I stepped off the metal stairway of the 20th Street entrance: the crew have laid a good city block’s worth of new track, and installed pavers as well. The naked High Line is no more, at least not here (the photo above looks north from the parapet of the stairway on 20th Street).

If you look closely you can begin to see how it all fits together: the pavers (each with its individual number) and the rail ties.

Farther south, in the finished portion, I snapped this detail, which shows the layers of a paver (remember 1-2-3 Jello?) and the embedded screw that attaches (I presume) to a wooden rail tie. Or maybe to another paver.

No matter; we are seeing the underbelly of the High Line, but pretty soon it’ll all disappear and we’ll have a lovely walk on it.
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