Saturday, October 23, 2010

High Line: More than the sum of its parts

"The bronze quartermoon had just set when he ran into the remains of a Sioux warrior... 
The white man might sometimes bury his dead kin six feet under, as deep as he made his privies, 
but the red devil placed his dead six feet above ground for all men to see ... 
reared up out in the open so that his gross dark ignorant body could be given back to the 
powers of heaven and to the four quarters of the universe and to all the rains and to the wingeds 
of the air and to the little people of the earth."
 - Lord Grizzly, by Frederick Manfred

The act of lifting up a revered object in display for all to see, or a physical going up into a high place, is a powerful gesture, perhaps even a natural inclination hard wired by evolution into the human brain.  My recent visit to the High Line brought some rather powerful emotions to the fore and, as I tried to understand my response to the visit, I found myself entertaining thoughts along this line. This wasn't a random impulse, but a direct response to feelings of being in that particular place, late on a sunny, very windy October afternoon, near sunset.

Southern end of the High Line, where it passes beneath the Standard Hotel.
The High Line, a linear park built on an abandoned elevated rail structure in Manhattan (in case you don't know it), is a success far beyond anything most people expected. I was a fan from the start, because I used to hang out in this area in my early days in New York and remember seeing occasional freight trains on the line, but mainly because I knew Piet Oudolf was to design the plantings.

On my recent visit, I was rather enchanted by the experience of the place, and by the idea of the elevated space as a kind of refuge, a high place set aside for special things, like an alter. And, as I had recently read the quoted passage about an isolated Souix burial in Lord Grizzly, it occurred to me how universal is this symbol of the raised gesture, the high place, the garden in the sky. Moses going up to Mount Sinai...

But, as I said, this wasn't a random confluence of thoughts. I came directly from my experience, the feelings evoked by the High Line space. I visited with my partner, Phil (in the backpack), and my high school friend Will (leaning over).

In the Gansvoort Woodland section of the High Line, raised beds of Corten steel
make it easy to enjoy the colors and textures of ground covering sedges.

Birches, Carex pensylvanica, Stachys 'Hummelo'
If I try to describe the quality of that recent visit, the words exhilarating, quiet (though it wasn't quiet), and alone (though I wasn't alone) come to mind. As we walked up the 1.45-mile-long park, the plants tossing in the wind, the light of the lowering sun gradually moving to horizontal, changing from bright white to the reds and oranges of twilight, I felt stimulated and calmed at the same time. Stimulated by the beauty of the plantings and the views and the wind--and at peace. The place transforms New Yorkers, stops them in their tracks so to speak, as they stroll or lounge in relative isolation well above street level; looking up, out, down, around, with views from this "safe" perch into the other world of quotidian events: picturesque West Village side streets, bustling 10th Avenue, the Empire State Building thrusting up in the mid-distance. This place is special; in other times, in other cultures, it very well might have been called a holy or a spiritual place.

That may sound strange as a description of an elevated park in Manhattan, but it was my feeling about the place on that day. No. I don't fool myself that most visitors consciously think about a walk on the High Line as a spiritual experience, but I do believe most feel something out of the ordinary. I haven't yet heard anyone who's visited the High Line say they didn't like it, or that it was a disappointment. I hear only positive, and usually enthusiastic, comments. Why so?

First a map of the route, taken from the High Line web site, just to show its layout, and to emphasize its physical narrowness, how close it forces people to be with each other and with the plantings, then some photos taken on that windy, sunny October 9, with commentary of course.

Apart from being above street level, which alone makes for a special kind of space--a setting apart and a setting above--the secure, secluded space the High Line occupies is given a sensuous beauty and a sense of physical protection by an extraordinarily well designed array of perennials, trees and shrubs, many of prairie origin, many native to the area, some from far distant places--but all with a naturalistic look reminiscent of the wild, self-seeded growth that characterized the abandoned rail line before it was transformed into an urban horticultural and theatrical venue (it is quite theatrical, especially lighted at night). The sense of peaceful isolation and solitude in the midst of urban busy-ness was part of the experience of the overgrown rail structure long before the High Line park was conceived. It was unique even then, and it was that specialness that led to the desire to prevent destruction of the structure, and eventually to the formal conceptualization, design and construction of the High Line.

And it's usually crowded with people. How can a place with crowds of strangers have a spiritual feeling about it? Why not? Mecca? The banks of the Ganges? Santiago de Campostela? Canterbury? I find some of the most compelling photos of the High Line to be those showing people strolling along the park or sitting, talking, reading, just enjoying the light and air. There is a hidden drama being enacted here, even if most people don't have the intent of engaging in a spiritual act or even think of their actions in that context.

As the map shows, the long, narrow design forces visitors into a relatively small space, and focuses the eye on other visitors and passersby. This combination of physical nearness, anonymity, and the freedom to observe given by the spatial design creates a feeling of otherworldliness that has a profound effect on one's experience of this place: a little like a stage set, a little like a consecrated space for ritual engagement.

This psychological "preparation" of the mind's eye awakens the senses, much as foreign travel stimulates a kind of hyperawareness of one's surroundings, and makes the plantings resonant with significance. But before I push this metaphor too far, let's take a look at some of the plantings in mid-October.

My route was from the Gansevoort Woodland heading north through the Washington Grasslands.

Sections of the old rail line have been reconstructed as reminders of what was once there. These are among my favorite parts of the High Line, perhaps because they elicit powerful recollections of railroad tracks from my childhood, when I watched the City of New Orleans and the Panama City Limited resting for a new minutes on the rails in my home town in the deep South. In this tableaux the rails are abandoned, and the overplanting evokes a powerful nostalgia for something that has been lost.

These are real railroad track, but also nonfunctional reconstructions, artificial and highly theatrical, I think, in the way they manipulate images and memories. This is not to lessen their "truthfulness" in creating mood and evoking sense of place and the particular history of the High Line. These tableaux stir the heart (certainly mine).

The rails also work as abstract patterns, almost like pattern in fabric, sculpture or painting, as geometric background contrasting with the soft, loose, rounded (and transient) plant forms.

In this next photo, I believe the spiky dead plants are Stachys monieri 'Hummelo', a signature Oudolf selection named for his garden in Hummelo in The Netherlands. The late afternoon shafts of sunlight create a stirring scene of considerable complexity and depth, in what appears, to me, to be one of the most successful integrations of hardscape design with planting design in the entire park.

If I may borrow a photo from my friend Judy Mann, you can see how the Stachys 'Hummelo' looked earlier in the season:

Less emotionally stirring, but beautiful in a practical and utilitarian way, is the seating on the High Line. Below is an example of a repeated design, in which the floor of the park soars up to become a bench, in this case with a back for added comfort.

This beauty below appears to be an exotic put in just for seasonal show. And not just one plant, but one of several the size of small trees. I believe this is Chlerodendrom trichotomum (Harlequin Glorybower), which just can't be hardy this far north, unless we are seeing an example of aggressive "zonal denial" at work.

And Clerodendron intermixed with Catalpa, for foliage contrast and added visual interest...

Further up the line, an area of groundcover with masses of Heuchera in the foreground, Aster tartaricus 'Jin Dai' on the right, and (I think) a cultivar of Deschampsia cespetosa on the left. The High Line plantings are, in a sense, a new palette for Piet Oudolf. Because of the nature of the place (it's meant to evoke the original wild plantings that grew spontaneously on the abandoned rail line) and the physical constraints of planting in a relatively shallow "ground" (this is after all really an elaborate green roof), Piet's High Line plantings are subtler, and considerable more restrained, they we usually expect from him.

Moving left, the planting becomes mostly Deschampsia, with islands of Aster tartaricus and Persicaria. And note the line of track and the original High Line railing retained in the background.

And further to the left, Sesleria autumnalis, a beautiful almost chartreuse grass that blooms in the fall, takes over for the Deschampsia, with the scattered asters maintaining continuity. Of course, none of these plants is native, but they have a native "look."

And more Sesleria autumnalis with Aster tartaricus ...

Persicaria amplexicaulis 'Fire Tail', I think, with a Trycirtis (Toad lily) to provide autumn color ...

Astilbe makes a highly effective geometric groundcover long after all color has faded. The plants are bedded in the same gravel that would be used on a real rail line (though smaller), another self-conscious reminder that this park is a "transformed" rail line.

A native Vernonia (Iron weed), positioned in the center of the traffic flow so as to force visitors to see it as they must move around it to either left or right,  must have attracted a lot of attention when it was covered in bright purple flowers. Even now, in seed, it's quite a sight.

Looking toward the Chelsea Market underpass, where public artworks are periodically installed, people are constantly coming and going, or stopping to rest in lounge chairs, reading, visiting, taking the sun. I doubt that many pay as close attention to the plants as I do, but it's obvious the plants do get a lot of attention. The design of the High Line makes this happen by virtue of simple geometry and limited space.

After passing beneath the Standard Hotel, visitors are immersed in the plantings as the park passage divides into much narrower paths.

An installation of colored glass panes, suggestive of stained glass windows strictly urbanized ...

The rather preciously named Northern Spur Horticultural Preserve is probably as close as any part of the High Line gets to the original wild vegetation, and it is a beautiful thing. My camera, or perhaps my photographic skills, are not adequate to showing you the amazing range and subtlety of colors in the plantings, even this late in the season. 

And again you can see the recreated rail line serving as a nostalgic reminder of the park's origin ...

And off the other side, to the east, the Empire State Building ...

Moving further up the park into the Chelsea Grasslands, off to the left we see the IAC building by Frank Gehry with its irregular shape, and an extraordinarily beautiful building (the tallest of the three, with color-tinted windows) by Jean Nouvel, named Nouvel Chelsea and, no, you probably can't afford to live there. (I haven't mentioned, yet, that the High Line has spurred amazingly rapid development of the former meat market district and western Chelsea). Yes, vigorous capitalism is at work.

Nearing the end of the park, you're likely to smell the distinctive odor of the native Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), which is planted in masses. In the future, the park will continue north from here.

Call it ironic, if you will. I didn't plan it this way. But it is true that Prairie Dropseed is a native of the short grass prairies of the North American midwest. If I'm not mistaken, this is the area in which much of the novel, Lord Grizzly (see opening quotation), is set, and thus we've come round to the place where we started, and to a reminder of the quality of the experience of the High Line, a special place, a high place set apart.

Here is a brief video that, though not of the best quality, does provide a glimpse of the feeling of that day. That roar is the wind.

For two very different takes on the High Line, see A Tidewater Gardener and Victoria's Backyard.


  1. What a place, every city should have one!

    Alone in a crowd, in a nice way.

    I enjoyed the narrative by the way, you do it justice. One day I'll get to New York, it's on the list along with Oudolf's nursery in Hummelo.

  2. My God, James, incredible. I was already very anxious to visit someday, now... now I realize how poor I am. Those steel raised beds are something to borrow, and those yellow picnic tables below--I want one. Where else but in NYC? Incredible. Many thanks to you for this tour.

  3. Rob,
    I think you got my point! Thanks. Please let me know if you visit NYC. Hummelo is definitely on my list too, as are many other places.

  4. Benjamin,
    Come for a visit. I love those Corten steel raised beds too, but I can't even imagine what the material costs, much less how to move it! I'm only guessing that's Carex pensylvanica in them, but I've never seen it in such full, lush form. I wonder where it came from and who grew it. (PS - I haven't gotten my book of your poetry yet; suppose it will arrive soon.)

  5. Amazing, beautiful report, James, thank you for taking time for doing it. I've never been there yet, but have loved this park since the very first pictures I saw. It is such a great example of post-modern usage of a man-made environment, spiritual as it does not deny its origins. In Seattle, there is a great debate of building the Alaskan highway cutting the city from the sea into a tunnel; I would love to see the existing, old highway that follows the shoreline built into a park like this. But as usual, the economic considerations seem to be the only ones that count ... When I look at your pictures, I can imagine how a reconstructed Alaskan highway park transform the whole city centre of Seattle. What a dream!

  6. It's interesting James that where we'd once set aside green spaces we'd enter into deliberately, much like going to church, we're now allowing nature to assert itself wherever it can, all around us. Our consequential spiritual experiences, or feelings of being transported, can thus occur in the midst of our ordinary lives. We come across these unexpectedly, rather than making a point of looking for them. I love your photos...thankyou for the wonderful tour.

  7. I like your take on the Highline - one of my favourite places.

  8. Faisal, what you say reminds of David Cooper's writing about the interdepencence (he uses the term "co-dependence") of human creativity and nature as an epiphany (cf., A Philosophy of Gardens). Thank you for that insight.

  9. Seen this one?

  10. What a wonderful post! You must have been there just days before I visited. I thought it was amazing - but unfortunately the weather wasn't as bright and sunny when I went, so I didn't take so many pictures. And I think jetlag affected my brain, because when I got home to London I found it very difficult to describe the Highline in a way that sufficiently reflected my enthusiasm. I'll just tell people to come here and read your post instead!

  11. Liisa,
    I remember the Alaska highway well. We were in Victoria, BC, on 9/11 and ended up spending several days in Seattle after that, in addition to a visit to Seattle before that. It certainly does cut the city apart and what a great project it would be to use it as a similar park. I know a lot of private money went into making the High Line, and I would hope something similar might be possible in Seattle. I also understand constructing a tunnel to replace the elevated highway would cost billions. Good luck to Seattle.

  12. Marie,
    Thanks for visiting. I see you have a post on Oudolf's Battery Bosque!

  13. Elephant's Eye,
    Thanks for the link to Victoria's blog post.

  14. James,
    It is 10:30 Sunday night. Just got home. A group of the gardening volunteers from Peterborough drove done to NYC today to check out Wave Hill, the High Line and Battery Park. Your pictures are much better than the ones we took. Beautiful!! Thanks for documenting it so well.

  15. Victoria,
    Thanks for the complimentary comment. It appears you visited the High Line on a rather dull day. I was more fortunate to visit on an absolutely stunning day, with the drama of wind and oncoming twilight. It certainly doesn't appear that your daughter found the experience "spiritual" or even exhilarating, but I suppose a 16-year-old girl has other things on her mind. Did you know we have another Oudolf-designed park in NYC? The Battery Bosque! Thanks for visiting. I've been reading your blog for a couple of years now.

  16. James Golden!

    Thanks for this epic, particularly fine post. Well done. For some reason, it comes to mind that this would sit well on the thinkinGardens site...maybe someone should petition Anne Wareham? Hmm.

    It's amazing, yes, that Oudolf and the other designers involved have managed to create a space that can provoke such a strong emotional/spiritual response in the middle of the jamming chaos of the big city? On paper it feels like a bit of an But maybe the contrast heightens the experience of the plantings? Duh.

  17. Michael,
    I wish I could have met you. But I was out in New Jersey anyway. Hope you all had a good trip. I think it must have been a beautiful weekend for visiting those gardens. A lot to do in such a short time!

  18. Peter,
    Editing all those photos and sorting them into some order was kind of an epic task. It is an apparent contradiction, isn't it? Such a personal and emotional response in the midst of a busy, noisy city. Maybe only those with mystical inclinations find this easy (I might add "Heh, heh" but then that's your particular style.). I don't think this is necessarily down Anne's alley, so to speak, but maybe I'll ask her. I feel I gave the actual park designers (Diller, Scofidio and Renfro, and Field Operations) rather the short end of the stick by not even mentioning them. I'll have to do something to address that lack of balance, I suppose.

  19. I am having a Highline afternoon after hot footing it over from Victoria's post.
    Great pictures and fine words.
    It is a fabulous place: one of the most striking things I noticed is the extremes of light and shade as you walk along. You can wander from warm sunshine into the deep chilling shade of a building and from cold wind to relative shelter. It is yet another dimension to the garden and one that is dramatically different depending on the time of day.

  20. James, the poetry book is two weeks behind schedule for printing (release was to be 10/29), which puts in jeopardy my book release reading on 11/11. I'm sure you will give me your opinion on it once it arrives? If I'm ever in NYC, we can stroll the gardens.

  21. James A-S,
    Yes, the extremes of light and dark give the High Line a very urban ambience (at least for me, as I drive through dim tunnels into bright light several times a week), but I suppose it's not necessarily urban at all. My garden in the country offers much the same effect this time of year. Depends on your frame of reference, I suppose. Glad you call the High Line a "garden." There are some who probably wouldn't agree, though I do.

  22. You know how much I like this most amazing garden, there is truly nothing else like it with its combination of the natural and not. I envy you and anybody else that can see it throughout the seasons. During the brief time I saw it on a hot August morning, I could tell it had been planted with all seasons in mind. It was not crowded when we were there, but I would love to attend a concert there or to watch couples dancing to salsa.

  23. Amazing post!!! What a place!!!! Absolutely perfect in every detail!
    I have only once felt a spiritual experience like that in a garden: Park Guell in Barcelona by Gaudi. Placed in a high point overlooking the city. I got there very early in the morning but unfortunately the magic was gone once the crowds got in.
    The post also reminds me of another you wrote about the feelings we had in woods. I believe that the park being aisolated from crazy Manhattan at a high point, makes you feel safe. A beautiful peaceful safe place from where you can see the busy city.
    I can´t wait to go and visit!

  24. Les,
    You remind me of how fortunate I am to have this great city available to me, even though I can't wait to spend more days in the country. I just took a re-look at your post on the High Line, and wish I'd incorporated a link to it. The contrast in the look of the plantings with passage of a couple of months is really dramatic, as is the different light. And, as usual, your photos are tremendous. Think I'll just go back and do that.

  25. Amalia,
    I believe you are right. The isolation of the park is one of its greatest virtues. Of course, it's beautifully and sensitively designed (both the hardscape components and the plantings), and immaculately maintained, but the special quality of a tree house seems very important to giving it a "spiritual" or "otherworldly" feeling. I'm not surprised you've had a similar experience in a garden before. We have friends living in Barcelona, so I hope to see Park Guell some day. Actually, I think your web site has that peaceful, shall I call it "spiritual" quality?

  26. Fascinating, asnd best account I have had of this.
    Best Wishes

  27. Thanks, Robert. Since you moved your web site I haven't been seeing your daily posts. Hope I'm not missing them.

  28. James,
    Let me add my voice to say this was a much-appreciated tour. I can't believe I haven't high-tailed it back to NY to see and walk this garden.

    Ever concerned about follow-up, do you know who is responsible for maintaining this garden? Surely it cannot be left to its own devices, or else the Manitoba maple seedlings et al would take over. I do love that Persicaria and Tricyrtis -- my two new favourites.

  29. Ailsa,
    You're right about maintenance. A private organization, Friends of the High Line, is responsible for maintenance, in collaboration with the city and the Department of Parks and Recreation. Without private money, this park would never have come to be, and it wouldn't be properly maintained without the energy, enthusiasm,and financial support that comes via Friends of the High Line. So far, the park/garden is immaculately maintained. You can read more about this on the Friends of the High Line web site.

  30. What a wonderful post on a great garden that I just saw recently too. Your photos really capture how the plantings are integrated with the old railway. I agree, it is an intensely special place.

  31. Denise,
    Thanks for commenting. I really appreciate it because it led me to your blog. It's affirming to know that you also feel the High Line is "an intensely special place." I think many others feel this, and your confirmation of that is welcome.

  32. Great post. I love all the photos of the plantings. I think our culture does a lot of spiritual things that it doesn't get credit for, things with an underlying spiritual element that doesn't get acknowledged. Probably because of issues within our culture, because we lack some of the spiritual overtones, but as a group we are still revering mountains and plants and historic figures and places in very similar ways to other cultures that are credited with being very spiritual. Also trashing mountains and plants and places, too, but that's another story, and one which happened in the other spiritual cultures too.

  33. Ryan,
    Maybe our religion gets in the way of spirituality. I think this has been true of our culture from the beginning, and I believe it's especially so now. Fundamentalism and spirituality don't easily walk side by side.

  34. what a wonderfull post!
    just drop on your page and I should take more time to read your commentsagain. they are very ditailed and interesting.
    greetings from germany Sibylle

  35. Sibylle,
    Thanks for just dropping in. I see your blog gives me another eye on gardens in Europe, especially Germany, which is hard to come by. Thanks again.

  36. Great post James...I'm so jealous, I've wanted to visit there since I first heard about it! I'm loving the design (Piet Oudolf, right?) of the plants as well as the hardscape and the integration of the tracks. Sounds like you had a great time...then again, it's NYC!

  37. Scott,
    Glad to hear from you. Oudolf, yes. I really didn't give proper credit to the landscape architect James Corner Field Operations, and architect Scofidio Diller and Renfro, so I may have to do a follow-up post on that aspect of the High Line. Their design is an amazing response to some difficult challenges.

  38. I visited the Highline for the first time in June 2009, just a week or so after it had opened. I was coincidentally in the city. I was walking around with some gardening friends and was so impressed by what I saw. I had heard Oudolf talk about the project a couple of years before at a lecture in Rotterdam and I was thinking about how amazing it would be to work on such a site when who should walk by but Oudolf himself. I had, to put in lightly, a fan girl moment but did manage to muster out a "It looks great, Piet." in Dutch. Made my day. Hell, it made my month.

    1. Interesting who you meet on the High Line. (I'm known for running into famous people and not recognizing them.) Last January Michael Gordon came down from Peterborough, NH, to go to a Tom Stuart-Smith lecture at New York Botanical Garden. Michael and I took a walk on the High Line the day before the lecture, and who should we run into? Tom Stuart-Smith and his wife on their first visit to the High Line. I've never met Piet, but if he ever comes to an open event in NYC, I'll certainly make a point of doing that.



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