Chapter IV, The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
On the Sunday when much of the city was waiting to rejoin the New York of high balls in the third season premiere of Mad Men, I took a tour of the High Line, the new distinct park that opened in June where elevated freight rails were built in the 1930s on the west side. “Park” is not the best descriptive word, promenade is, hence my thoughts easily alighting on Edith Wharton and the Gilded Age, when promenading was an all important part of the workings of society.
Forgotten New York
In the early part of the last century trains brought raw goods to the west side from 34 Street to the St. John’s Park Terminus at Spring Street, with the track going straight through various buildings en route where goods were unloaded.
With the advent of Robert Moses and the interstate sprawl, fewer things were delivered by rail, and in 1980, the last train rolled over the elevated tracks.
For two decades the tracks faded into “forgotten New York,” those disused tunnels and passages and hidden doorways that intrigue urban enthusiasts. Joshua David and Robert Hammond, who lived in the High Line/Meat Packing neighborhood, joined those ranks when they had the idea to turn the 1.3 miles of tracks into a park.
It is some sort of miracle that they went from inception of idea to opening of phase one in just eight years. That’s quite the confluence of money raising, zoning issues, State, Federal, and City regulations redtape, before the enormous architectural/design integration started.
I was surprised to learn that turning railroad lines into recreational areas is a national idea. There is a Washington D.C.,-based group called Rails-to-Trails Conservancy that helps states do just that. This meant that when the Friends of the High Line was formed to help finance the project they did not have to invent the wheel. You can join the groovy Friends with a membership to the High Line.
The High Line is a distinct experience on many levels. You enter by walking up stairs at various points, like entering an elevated subway line. Its first point is at Gansevoort, quite the call-back itself to Dutch New York. That entry point has small trees, while most of plantings are flowers and wild grasses, the work of Piet Oudolf in collaboration with James Corner and Field of Operation.
The promenade is a cross between a boardwalk and a 19th cabled-car street. The artistry of the experience is in the recreation of the wild growth that had reclaimed the tracks in its twenty fallow years. Our tour guide, Lisa Switkin, the project manager from 2004 to 2007, and an associate principal at Field Operations, said that everything had to be dismantled from the original track. Which means they had the option of creating an entirely new space. But they chose to create anew the look and feel of nature encroaching on the man-made infrastructure of commerce and staking its claim. They painstakingly relaid the original track and used a track motif for the benches and certain of the floor flourishes.
Black-eyed Susan are a welcoming dominant flower. Some of the planting will need another year to deliver its maximum effect.
As you walk north you pass open areas and more landscaped ones, and through two tunnels through the buildings where the goods were once unloaded. The one tunnel may be developed into a space for lectures. One open area is the sundeck, with wooden chaise lounges. Where the park turns at 17 street is an amphitheater that overlooks 10 avenue. So nice for the Greeks to make an appearance like that. From various spots you can see the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building. But it’s the views of the old buildings that you can almost touch that are the most special. I need to go back at night, when the walk will have en entirely different feel.
"Because You’re Mine . . .
. . . I’d walk the line.” I couldn’t resist an allusion to the million seller from Johnny Cash (although I actually prefer crazy Jaye P. Morgan’s 1960 version).
What I love about the High Line is that it is for walkers only. No bicycles, no rollerblades. Society no longer has the codes that governed life during the The Gilded Age. A Michigan University academic wrote “Anatomy of a Promenade: The politics of bourgeois sociability in nineteenth-century New York.” There are no such set of codes and signs now, but perhaps as the High Line develops, a promenade culture will as well. It could be intriguing, as long as it's not accompanied by whale-bone corsets.
It could draw on even older customs. Years ago I was walking with a friend and I dropped a handkerchief. He picked it up and said, ‘in the Middle Ages, we would now be engaged.’ Ah, those were the days.
(Painting, Childe Hassam, Promenade)