It is an unusual and yet utterly New York paradox that to glimpse the natural world in Manhattan you must visit an unnatural place.
That is part of the appeal of the weirdly beautiful High Line. Not the manicured park, with its concrete boardwalk and hordes of tourists but what came before on the 1.5-miles railroad trestle, the despoiled beauty of Mother Nature set loose in the wilds of Chelsea, undisturbed for decades but for the occasional trespasser.
More than 10 million visitors have taken in the breathtaking views of the city’s skyline and the Hudson River and traipsed through its minimalist landscape of historic tracks and native grasses since the High Line park opened in 2009. It has encouraged development in Chelsea and Meatpacking, inspired artists and filmmakers, and managed to polarize the surrounding neighborhood before it has even been fully restored.
Yet the thin strip of pre-post-industrial wildlands that made that all possible is about to disappear.
The feeling was inescapable during a bittersweet walk on the overgrown final half-miled of the trestle last weekend, one of the last chances New Yorkers got to visit the final untended piece of the High Line before it is recast along with its burnished siblings.
About 800 fortunate people traipsed through the half-mile stretch encircling Hudson Yards last weekend in an event organized by Open House New York and Friends of the High Line and sponsored by the Japanese retailer, UNIQLO. Tours continue this coming weekend, though they are totally booked up.
A better sponsor would have been Timberland boots.
The path begins on West 34th Street, next to the last set of idling Megabuses bound for Pittsburgh and Toronto. It unfolds through an arc of unpruned apple trees and Oriental bittersweet before curving gently toward 12th Avenue. It kinks again at 30th Street, running out to the spur that may someday become a theater at the base of great office towers. The renovated High Line, and the reality of New York, reemerge here.
The skyline, river, plant life and rail line all compete for your attention, forcing visitors to slow down to fully appreciate the park. This is a space for ambling.
It’s a nice problem to have.
“They did a beautiful job with this,” said Ellen Appleby, who made the pilgrimage on Sunday. “It’s not an English rose garden or a formal French garden. They kept the informal feel of all these weeds and created a wonderful place.”
Everywhere granite and quartz ballast stones are scattered about the tracks. Railroad spikes jut unevenly from weathered, garnet-colored rails. Deteriorated wooden ties bend and give under the weight of footsteps. Patches of wildflowers, native grasses, and peach trees that germinated on the rail beds are so thick they are nearly impenetrable.
The new plans for the third section call for retaining much of this wilderness, but it will no doubt bear the mark of the manicured.
Students of history can see remnants of the country’s post-industrial might.
The oldest section of the grounds was built in the 1930s and contains metal railroad parts emblazoned with the names of northeast steel companies. A hydraulic switch with is patent number clearly visible at the park’s 30th Street entrance was made by Racor, the Ramapo-Ajax Corp, a Hillburn, NY company near the Ramapo Mountains also known as the Ramapo Foundry Company.
A railroad frog, those junctions allowing trains to switch tracks, bears the handiwork of the Bethlehem Steel, the country’s second-largest steel company, which built ships for the U.S. armed forces and the steel used in the Golden Gate Bridge. Other rail parts have the name “Lackawana,” an Erie County steel company that became a Bethlehem subsidiary in 1922.
But other manufacturer parts that litter the High Line trail have more unusual origins.
Caramel colored ceramic insulators with no markings on them can be found above 31st Street. And several steel plates securing wooden planks on the rails contain a jumble of numbers perhaps indicating their date of origin or some other code.
Perhaps even more mysterious is the growth of a variety of native and non-native plant species along the inhospitable terrain.
Even when it comes to our invasive flora, New York is a magnet for immigrants.
Volunteers have identified dozens of flowers, grasses, and trees that have taken root since the trains stopped running on the line more than three decades ago.
On the path above 12th Avenue grow peach and crabapple trees, elegant branches of Frost Aster, dormant stalks of Queen Anne’s lace, fading yellow goldenrod, spiky white Thoroughwort, purple Centaurea or thistle, and a handsome Juniper bush. Friends of the High Line are well known for their creative fundraising efforts–Diane Von Furstenburg has made numerous collaborations–so perhaps a High line gin is in order.
Photographer Rick Darke, who was cataloguing the season’s growth, hoped that New Yorkers would equally welcome native and non-native plants growing on the High Line. “Invasive is a pejorative term, it should be really called hyperadapted natives from other places,” he said. “Some of these species have been in New York for over 300 years. How do you determine what makes a native New Yorker?”
Still, the tour evoked mixed feeling, as New Yorkers witnessed the last time the High Line will ever look this uncultivated. City officials already broke ground on the third leg of the park last month. Construction on its $90 million refurbishment will begin later this fall and the first phase of the new space will be open by 2014.
Landscape architect James Corner Field Operations and designers Diller Scofidio + Renfro will remove the rail spikes and wooden boards, and add scores of concrete planks creating a smooth pathway for people to stroll and linger. Planting designer Piet Oudolf will preserve many of the wild grasses and flowers above the rail yards, but he can’t save everything.
For access, we are paying the price.
The cost of creating a New York space for millions to enjoy is sacrificing a portion of the unkempt splendor that drew its early admirers to the site in the first place.
But perhaps that’s the way with all New York institutions. The elevated track could have been scrapped entirely and its preservation remains a great victory for the public.
“This is a wild garden that has survived without any chemicals or irrigation,” said Darke. “This is the most sustainable garden in New York. It is a triumph.” The current High Line costs millions of dollars a year to maintain, an amount Friends of the High Line has struggled to raise on a consistent basis.
When the park is finished, it will no doubt be a triumph, too, the kind of transformation the city has not known since Central Park. But we can still acknowledge the beauty that was there before, before it is gone for good.