Sunday, June 14, 2009

High Line Park (1): A Curmudgeon in Wonderland

It's now a park: the High Line, circa 1934.

My first thought about the High Line was a curmudgeonly one.

As many New Yorkers will know, the High Line is a long and narrow park that has been constructed along the bed of an old elevated rail line that was built to deliver freight to the industrial buildings of lower Manhattan’s far West Side back in the 1930s.

The park’s first section, which runs from Gansevoort to 20th streets, had opened on June 9, and like a lot of people I was eager to see it.

I’d read that there were only three entrances and that visitors were supposed to walk north. I picked up a sandwich at Chelsea Market and figured I could enter right there, at 16th Street, and then head up to 20th Street.

The 16th Street entrance was blocked off, however. A worker was explaining that the city wanted visitors to enter at Gansevoort Street, where they could be counted.

I was annoyed. New York has become a city obsessed with traffic management, and from time to time I feel I’ve had quite enough of all the freshly painted stripes and arrows and interjecting curbs and police announcing that you can’t cross here.

I briefly considered stalking across the street to a different park and eating my sandwich in a huff about being barred from the High Line.

Instead I changed my plans, walked four or five blocks south, and entered as instructed. I climbed a staircase and emerged into the pristine park, with its railroad allusions and native plantings and second-story view of Manhattan.

The sense of floating through and over buildings at that height creates an immediate sense of freedom. A sense of lightness and pleasure bubbled up along with my lingering crankiness about social control.

It occurred to me that the High Line (in this inaugural period of heightened supervision, anyway) fit very much into the modern model of a public institution.

You were welcome to come up and delight in a leisurely stroll—but everything that framed the experience was controlled. The direction of your walk was dictated to you, your points of access and egress predetermined, everything you did monitored and counted.

This ethos was summed up in the signs along the way. These read something like “Keep It Wild: Stay on the Path.” The “wild” areas in question were the garden beds, impeccably planned and planted, lined with gravel. In the age of surveillance, this is what “wild” looks like.

I sat down on one of stylish, backless benches and felt a deepening sense of relaxation as I took in the view.

There was construction going on a roof across the way, and I could see a worker in a hard hat stretched out on the tar, finishing his lunch. Was he amused to look up and watch the crowds thrilling to the perspective from the new park when it was something he saw every day?

Within a few moments, another hardhat joined me on my bench. He unwrapped his lunch, swiveled around to look at the trees, and then gazed out toward the river.

“This is really nice,” he said.

1 comment:

ccc said...

I haven't been yet but your the feeling you describe reminds of walking on the old elevated part of the West Side Highway before they tore it down (but after it had been closed to traffic).