The High LineThe High Line in New York City

High on Grass

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Rara avis

At night, couples make out on the grass 30 meters above ground, unperturbed by the hundreds of post-sunset strollers fluttering past them, as though shades kept in motion by the city lights. The entwined pairs are enveloped by a novel privacy wrought by subtle uplighting on the grass and wildflowers; the architectonic disposition of dusky pockets in a very linear space; the inconspicuous but evidently effective security; and the kindness of strangers.

Hard to think up another urban scheme anywhere more fondly regarded than the High Line. The transformation into a linear park of the abandoned freight rail line over lower Manhattan, last used to convey three cabooses of frozen Thanksgiving birds in 1980, slid quickly and happily into what’s cosmopolitan; what’s the new urbanity. What’s delight when intelligently construed—by all?

All in this case means all. The High Line has no detractors, so this is as rara as it gets. It presents a garden of many returns to folks persisting after the Fall. Indeed after 9/11, a long long garden of weedlike vegetation is just what the doctor ordered for the city that not only doesn’t sleep—it is still coping with nightmare. Great feeling therefore to make out that on High Line, the canoodling couples don’t exude a sordid air; their sexual energy spring-like, hopeful. The walking talking people-watching meditating viewfinding unlimbering is easy-going and often exhilirated. People walk miles who are loathe to manage a block and a half at ground level. The newly materialized 21st century promenading does not strike anyone as a sad retreat into 19th century affectation. And the jealous tourist vows to find some derelict something back home, to rehab with plants and sheer gusto.

The unabashed plagiarist will try to link up with Joshua David and Robert Hammond. The names would be familiar to them: the writer/editor and artist/consultant who together initiated and tended to the metamorphosis of the atrophied seam of a railroad into a vein that actually has a steady pulse; who set things in motion simply as concerned and imaginative residents of the old High Line vicinity. Citizen-action enthusiasts from anywhere will connect robustly with the pair (originally from out of town too) who through their expanding circle of admirers will of course change parts of cities they have never visited.

The more zealous would-be urban renewalists might seek out James Corner, the designer of this rare bird of a park. They will peck and brood at his idea of a “secret garden in the sky” experienced as “a succession of episodes” —which Corner plotted as a sequence of distinct flowerings and sproutings expressing a choreography of gentle change, with vegetation exploding out of the interstices of newels supporting pavers that become seats before disappearing again into the platform, revealing old rail here and there—and inevitably a question suggests itself. Why on earth hasn’t anyone thought of this before?

And as a matter of course, the answer comes up. Which is this: few acknowledge the autonomy of plants from the foibles of mice and men.

Wild west

Corner did. He and his team undertook sophisticated slab design, irrigation and drainage networking, biomass containerization, plantings of species endemic to Northwestern America—all the bells and whistles of state-of-the-art landscaping—apparently to exhibit an awe of the grassy, feral interlude at the West Side Elevated Freight Railroad after shutdown marked by that last turkey run.

Before human design fixed on this space, plants had taken over. Self-seeded, autobirthed, multiply-generated, grass and wildflowers colonized the soils and gunk of the extended, gargantuan plant box. More than a kilometer and a half of lavish, undomesticated growth sprung out of airborne genetic material on the track bed. To that non-human High Line can be attributed the human qualities of tenacity, resilience, and obstinate grip on life; but that would be small-minded.

That wild High Line (1980 to 2007) gave the planners to understand that plants will really not be brought under metaphors. Truly. Despite the totalitarianisms of agriculture, landscaping, and biotechnology, grass in particular will be cockroach and virus, alert to but in fact indifferent to humans. Best, one thinks now, to salute this stuff that is bigger than people; larger, certainly, than designers’ and scientists’ and writers’ schemes. This was the brilliant gesture credited to the Corner team, which they captured with their mantra “keep it!” And which they then proceeded to unromanticize by an evocation that does not at all pretend to be natural.

When the High Line conveyed animal carcasses to New York’s meatpacking district (1934 to 1980), the trains shot through voids cored into the Industrial Revolution buildings, at that time already oldish. It had to penetrate the thick residues of the past to be a lifeline, with rural American sustaining New York City. It also traced that hoary modern trajectory of progress.

The 21st-century High Line no longer “penetrates” to get past the past. Instead it focuses on grass. And grass is a trace of matters that should humble humans.

Marian Pastor Roces walks cities everywhere, and finds cubbyholes in which to write criticism, emails, parts of books, and accounts of her wanderings.

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