HOW will it feel to meander through a park 30 feet above the streets of Chelsea? Thanks to a recent decision by a federal agency giving the city an important green light to create just such a park along the High Line, the long-unused elevated railroad bed that snakes through the lower West Side, New Yorkers may well find out. People will not be able to stroll along that viaduct until 2007, when the first segment of the refurbished High Line is scheduled to open. For a quicker taste of what the future may hold, here is the story of another such midair park - the only other one, in fact. It is called the Promenade Plantée, and it is in Paris.
In 1989, just in time for the bicentennial of the French Revolution, President François Mitterrand inaugurated a new Opera House on the site of the Bastille Railroad Station, which had been torn down. The demolition had signaled a historic shift in the urban texture of the eastern part of the city; in its wake the traditionally blue-collar neighborhood would get a face-lift, gentrification and a wealth of new government projects.
But the languishing infrastructure of the area's industrial and artisanal past was not simply razed. The past was not delivered wholesale into the hands of real estate developers and government officials intent on grandiose public projects. Some of it, preserved and restored, was converted to new and intriguing public uses. Thus the city bought back from the rail company the derelict rail bed and yards of the old Eastern Line. Where trains had once clanked along, a continuous green path would grow, tracking unveeringly the line of vanished rails, on the bed of a viaduct, through trenches, into tunnels and over bridges.
The Promenade Plantée (planted promenade), which opened in 1998, is three miles long, twice as long as the High Line, and a third of its length runs on the elevated rail bed alongside Avenue Daumesnil. The 71 brick and stone arches supporting this section have all been restored and refaced to house contemporary furniture showrooms, galleries and workshops of traditional and modern arts and crafts. The wide sidewalk alongside the viaduct, cleared of cars, was opened to pedestrians, Rollerblade skaters, cyclists, skateboarders and cafe terraces.
Imagine then, a very long and narrow green strip, threading its way through densely urban space: widening here and there into formal or landscaped gardens, sometimes shearing apartment buildings, canyonlike, into two, sometimes running underground in tunnels turned into grottoes, losing sight of the city surrounding it, and, for more than a mile, floating above its streets.
As you start walking along the promenade, at the end of the viaduct closest to the Place de la Bastille, your path follows a narrow central alley, bordered on both sides by evenly and widely spaced linden trees. On this platform, about 30 feet above the ground, your eyes are level with both the third floor of the buildings abutting the parapet to your left and the canopy of the huge old trees lining the Avenue Daumesnil below, to your right.
The visual rhythm of the promenade is the secret of its charm. In theory, the inescapable narrowness of the viaduct could induce a sense of constriction, even claustrophobia. But as you walk along, body and gaze pass successively through narrow, open, light-filled passages punctuated by linden or cherry trees, and through closed micro-gardens that are paradoxically spacious and densely planted.
SUNNY and shaded areas alternate, each displaying a new arrangement of plants, common and exotic: nicely trained columns of climbing roses, trellised grapevine, rows of miniature holly, low-cut parterres of boxwood, arches of sweet-smelling wisteria or honeysuckle, somber hedges of Caucasus Laurel, tunnels of tall reeds and bamboo rustling in the breeze.
You walk and wonder: Could that be a parterre of butterfly weed? What is the Latin name for this flower your grandmother told you was the fleur de la passion? And then, beyond hedges, trellises and pergolas, your wandering gaze catches a gray speckle of Parisian roofs, and some laundry hung to dry in the window of an apartment building.
As you get to a bridge, cross streets pull your view into sudden perspectives. Farther on, the blooms overflowing the balconies of a recessed building seem to echo your own path. And this, more than a mere aerial nature walk, is how the elevated part of the Promenade Plantée feels: like a luxurious balcony in the city, both secluded from the street and opened to the sky, the facades, the treetops. It is your own dream balcony magically stretched beyond imagination.
Fountains and stone benches allow for pauses, for leisurely lounging. Five stairways and two elevators along the way link the promenade to the streets below. Around lunchtime, you'll see office workers taking their break; at all hours of the day, the promenade is dotted with high-school students in small groups or amorous pairs, older people in the sun or in the shade, parents pushing strollers, tourists just off the nearby train, and readers sitting or lying on benches, seemingly oblivious to the world around them.
You'll find, in short, the usual mixed population of all the city's public gardens. But it somehow feels like a more intimate, a more secret space than the vast expanses of lawns and rows of great trees of the Tuileries or the Luxembourg Gardens, a more leisurely array of botanical surprises than the wonderful yet didactic Jardin des Plantes. It feels at each step and station like both a miniature neighborhood garden and a path leading you to a destination, ancient, but not lost from memory.