“A Magic-Carpet View of the City”
By Philip Connors
Thursday, August 22, 2002 – New York
Having moved here from Montana nearly four years ago, I found it difficult to suppress the urge to climb, to explore, to seek out remnants of wilderness. I was eager to get up – not by an elevator but by my own two feet. A few climbing adventures in industrial Queens provided gorgeous city views, but factory rooftops were no match for timbered peaks.
Then I noticed the High Line.
A strip of elevated railroad on Manhattan's West Side, it runs from 34th Street and 12th Avenue to Gansevoort Street in the meatpacking district. It is a treasure now mostly because it's the structure that time forgot.
It beckoned because it was . . . green. From 23rd Street and 10th Avenue, I looked up and saw a strip of meadow in the sky. I had to get there. But how? Now owned by CSX, a Virginia-based rail and shipping company, the track was built in the 1930s as a freight line. It carried its last shipment, three cars of frozen turkeys, in 1980. Passenger trains never used it. Thus, no stairs or other means of pedestrian access. I followed its path several blocks north until I spied a route up. This required climbing a fence, heaping old automobile tires into a pile, scaling the pile and heaving myself onto a factory rooftop, then shimmying up steel support beams onto the tracks. (Only later – much later – did I find an easier way.)
Behold! The city opened like a flower, the towers of Midtown cupping the Empire State Building like petals around a gleaming silver stamen. Even more remarkable than the urban panorama was the view at my feet. A swath of Manhattan had gone to seed, reverting to a kind of native prairie: knee-high grasses, white and yellow wildflowers, a miracle born of neglect. I fell for it instantly and have gone back again and again.
At 30th Street the tracks run east-west for two long blocks, then curve south again. Here a corrugated tin barricade blocks the way, but someone has torn a gash in it just big enough to allow a man to slip through. Recently, an artist painted a mural on the back side. It depicts the view to the north and west, including the river and the low-slung black box of the Javits Center. In the sky are the words "save the tracks," as if written by an airplane skywriter. On the right-hand side of the curve, going south, a sculpture collection sits on a rooftop: funky-looking abstractions fashioned of multicolored hoops and painted wire mesh, like the offspring of a Slinky and a tennis racket.
Soon you come to another tin barrier. This one you must crawl beneath on your belly. When you emerge on the other side, you see something sublime: a small garden with a tiny maple tree, a miniature pine and a patch of daisies and sunflowers. The gardener tends this lovely plot by stepping from a third-floor apartment window on a plank laid across to the tracks. For a few seasons, the little pine was wreathed by a string of Christmas lights.
Forgive me if I make the High Line sound like an elevated Eden. In fact, part of its charm arises from juxtapositions of what might be considered the sacred and the profane.
In a shady spot where the tracks are bracketed by two old warehouse buildings, a miniature forest has risen; yet just beyond it the tracks are littered with rusty buckets, old spray-paint cans (graffiti detritus) and a lonesome-looking pair of turquoise underpants. In this way the tracks are like the streets below – elegant here, grubby there – and they turn Henry Adams's dictum on its head. "Chaos," he observed, "was the law of nature; Order was the dream of man." On the High Line nature has restored order to a chaotic sliver of Manhattan's West Side, and the only evidence of chaos appears in the flotsam left behind by humans.
In a passing scene is his novel "Great Jones Street," Don Delillo imagined a distant future when archaeologists would scale the mounds of rubble in our abandoned cities and attribute our culture's demise, in part, to the fact that we stored so much of our beauty high in the air, out of eyesight. I thought of Delillo as I looked down onto the roof of a grimy little auto-repair shop and saw two immaculately carved wooden owls perched on a ledge. From the street I would never have noticed them.
The High Line, though, is increasingly drawing notice. A group called Friends of the High Line (www.thehighline.org
) has been working to transform the structure into a seven-acre strip of levitating parkland, by making it part of the federal government's vastly successful Rails-to-Trails program. West Side property owners dream, instead, of dismantling it and building condos and office buildings. A very talented photographer, Joel Sternfeld, has taken pictures of the tracks in all seasons and published them in a marvelous book, "Walking the High Line," published by Steidl. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has even ordered a study on the High Line's future, and his administration's report is due this month.
It's hard to root for the real-estate developers in this case. A park along the High Line would be a stunning amenity in a city as dense as New York. Walking the tracks, it's possible to feel as if you're on a slow-motion magic carpet ride. Admittedly, a selfish and proprietary part of me wishes the tracks would simply be left to another 20 years of benign neglect. But then I remember the commanding city views we New Yorkers so recently lost. And I think that in its relative humility, its unprepossessing message that beauty and nature endure in the unlikeliest of circumstances, a park on the High Line could be a consoling gift we give to ourselves and the future of the city. [ ]