High Line Park

A Walk on June 12, 2009

The High Line Park was officially opened on Monday, June 8, 2009, at a private ceremony/party primarily for some few connected folks. The next day it was opened to the rest of us.

The High Line from Gansevoort and Washington Streets
The High Line Park from Gansevoort & Washington Sts.

Pickles of the North and I had heard about the opening of the High Line Park, and when we went to Manhattan to have lunch with my male ex on the first Friday after it'd opened we decided to take a look at it.

The first thing we found was that there was only one entrance to the new park. We had walked along 10th Ave. and had seen the W. 20th St. steps leading to the High Line. But when we went to go up the steps a guard who was stationed there told us that this was only an exit, and that we'd have to go to the single entrance at Washington and Gansevoort Streets in the old meat packing district. They have since opened up all of the access stairs as both entrances and exits, with the warning that if the High Line gets too crowded they'll restrict entry to the Gansevoort and Washington St. entrance. There's also an elevator for handicapped access at W. 16th St.

The High Line was originally an elevated railway line that was designed to bring goods into and out of lower Manhattan, primarily to and from manufactories located along the West Side. The High Line was finally built in the 1930s, after decades of problems with the ground level trains killing people on the many 10th Ave. grade crossings.

Pickles of the North at the southern terminus of the High Line Park
The extreme south end of High Line Park

Okay, so we wandered on down to the Gansevoort and Washington St. entrance. We traced the route of the High Line along the way, sort of getting a preview of what we could expect.

The exterior of the High Line from the street looks pretty much as it has for most of my life: decrepit. I remember when the High Line was in use as a real rail line. I used to see freight cars on it. The thing always seemed very odd to me. I was used to elevated subway lines, which ran along streets and denied sunlight to everything below the el.

The people who'd originally designed the High Line had wanted to avoid making a mess of 10th Ave. that way so they hit upon the idea of having the High Line go through buildings!

In the photograph to the left you can see where the High Line had continued through the building which is now across the street from the southern terminus of the park. I'm sure that the current building owners were pleased to be able to reclaim all that square footage from the useless, to them, tracks that had previously gone right through that space.

By the time that the High Line was completed in 1934, America was suffering through the Great Depression. I suspect that a number of the businesses that had been hopeful about using the High Line had gone under by the time it was built and in operation.

As built, the High Line had run from the railroad marshalling yards at W. 34th St. in mid-town Manhattan to Spring St. in Greenwich Village. The High Line structures south of Gansevoort St. have been demolished.

Not all of the High Line ran through buildings. Some of it ran over “vacant” land. This seriously devalued that land for real estate purposes. Once the High Line went up you couldn't build anything on that land that didn't fully accommodate the High Line.

A stretch of High Line Park in Chelsea
A long stretch of High Line Park in the open air

The use of the High Line began to decline when the United States of America began building a huge network of interstate highways that linked the entire nation. This had been largely the vision of Dwight D. Eisenhower who had been President of the United States from 1953 to 1961. As Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War II Eisenhower had become impressed with the German Autobahn system of superhighways, which had allowed the Germans to move troops, vehicles and goods along interior lines of communication very rapidly. When trucks were better able to move goods more cheaply than the rail system the advantages to the businesses that had been using the High Line began to disappear.

After the advantages of keeping the High Line were gone the mercantile pressures shifted towards getting rid of it. Building owners wanted to reclaim the space used by tracks they had no use for and real estate interests longed to build on the relatively cheap land that was under the High Line and which was mostly only suitable for parking lots.

A new building astraddle the High Line
The Standard Hotel

Some folks fought the initiatives to demolish the High Line. Eventually, agreements among the monied interests were reached. The High line below Gansevoort St. was demolished. A group called Friends of the High Line was formed to preserve some of the structures. This group organized the efforts to turn what was left of the High Line into a park and now works with the New York City Parks Dept. on the High Line Park project. The group says, “In addition to overseeing the maintenance, operations, and public programming for the High Line, Friends of the High Line is currently working to raise the essential private funding to help complete the High Line's construction and create an endowment for its future operations.”

What we have now is the High Line Park going through some new buildings. Here you can see the new Standard Hotel that straddles the High Line Park. I suppose a selling pont for this hotel is that guests can access the park without having to descend all the way to the scary streets of Manhattan where they might meet New Yorkers.

In my youth I'd seen the High Line a lot. But as a young gay man I became more familiar with it.

In March 1970, I joined the militant Gay Activists Alliance. I got to know a lot of people from that group and I learned a lot about things that most people never dreamed of. Among the things I learned about was “The Trucks.” The Trucks was the general designation given to a series of truck parking lots along Washington St., mostly between W. 10th St. and W. 12th St. It was more than a two block stretch because a number of named streets intervened. Almost all of these truck parking lots were beneath the High Line.

In the mazes formed by these parked trucks, and sometimes inside the backs of open trucks, there was a nightly gay orgy going on. Some adventurous gay men climbed the steel supports of the High Line to take a look around up there. And some brought the orgy up there where one could see the sky while engaging in orgiastic activities, which in those days did not produce incurable diseases.

new plantings
A tableau of recent plantings

On one occasion, possibly two, I was enticed to ascend a steel support and see what was happening up on the High Line. As I recall one had to climb up on a truck that was in the right position and get onto the steel support part way up. You then had to get a good grip on the steel straps of the support, which I remember as diagonal, and use that as a step ladder.

Only certain supports got you up to a good spot where you could get onto the High Line. Even with the relatively well traveled supports the ascent left you open to catching tetanus from all of that rough, rusty steel.

There were no clean hands on the High Line in those days.

For me they were short trips. No one was up there whom I wanted to have sex with and I wasn't sure about stumbling around in the dark in an unfamiliar place where I could fall 30 feet to the ground if I stepped in the wrong spot. Also, I wasn't sure where to go on the High Line in the event of a police raid such as frequently happened on the trucks below.

My time on the High Line in the early '70s can be measured in mere minutes. Other gay men spent a lot more time there. And some went in the daytime. Over the next decade or two some of these guys decided to plant things up there. As a result the small forest of weeds, including ailanthus trees, that had grown up as the rail traffic dwindled to a trickle and then stopped entirely got some competition from all sorts of flowering plants and the gay gardeners who had planted them. These gay men were the ones who really showed what could be done with this obsolete rail line that others considered to be only an eyesore.

When the High Line was renovated and made into a park all of the plantings from those gay men were removed, along with the tracks and anything else that was up there. The flowers, small trees and other botanical juxtapositionings to be seen today have all been installed recently for this park as a set of tableaux which are, whether intended that way or not, an homage to the gay men who pioneered the re-purposing of the High Line years ago.

When Pickles of the North and I got up on the High Line Park and looked off the eastern side of it I realized that we were looking at the site of The Mineshaft, a gay S&M bar of the '70s and '80s. I recall my couple of visits to The Mineshaft, as a journalist for WBAI of course, and my friends who were regular members of the place. They used to regale all of us with tales of the dungeons and of course of “the bath tub room” where the showers were always golden. The Mineshaft is as gone as The Trucks are, as the High line south of Gansevoort St. is. But I can remember.

artistic paving and track intersection
Interdigitated paving and landscaped trackwork

So Pickles of the North and I looked around at the southern end of the High Line Park and found that they're got their own little maze going on up there. Straight line views are infrequent. I guess this is to give the illusion that the park is bigger than it really is.

We were both impressed with how ugly that building in a photograph above, the Standard Hotel, is. There's a lot of hideous architecture showing up all over Greater New York these days. From the High Line the Standard Hotel is a glaring example.

The folks who've designed the park have tried to be artistic about their vision of a yuppy-comfortable park that doesn't deny the past. So there are occasional sets of of train tracks from the High Line's commercial transportation days with plantings between the rails. This is supposed to invoke the times after 1980, when anyone walking on the High Line was committing criminal trespass and those gay men were beautifying the place. The paving stones are also carved into thin finger-like projections in places to sort of reach out to the faux past and provide an interstice between the physical memory of the chaotic then and the dominant, paved authority of the perfect now.

There are a lot of these kinds of things all through the park. Of course the fact is that this is all artificial! The park is 30 feet up in the air. It's all built upon a railbed that was erected there in the 1930s. The train tracks are recycled from the original incarnation of the High Line, but everything else has been designed and brought there recently.

You can still see the numbers spray painted onto the tracks so that the construction crews could find them and pull them out from wherever they'd been stored to be integrated into this park. A big part of the cost of repurposing the High Line had been the need to make sure that the supporting structures were all safe, after decades of neglect. So everything that was up on the High Line when rehabilitation began in April 2006, was removed. This allowed all of that long neglected infrastructure to be repaired, and for drainage of the park and underlying platform to be improved. The total cost of completing the High Line Park up to 30th St. will be $152,000,000.

Pair of video cameras
Big Brother/Sister is watching!

There's another building that straddles the High Line at W. 15th St., the Chelsea Market building. Pickles and I noticed the video cameras high up on a wall there. Well, I'm not so pleased with video cameras in some places, but this is a more secluded part of this park, and I don't know that there's anyplace in Manhattan anymore that isn't under constant video surveillance. At least they're not intruding on some natural environment with these cameras. It's sure a good thing that those cameras weren't there 30 or more years ago!

Right across from the cameras there's an “art installation” by Spencer Finch called The River That Flows Both Ways. It consists of what are reported to be 700 glass panes, mostly of various blue hues, that are supposed to represent the photographs Mr. Finch took of the water in the Hudson River one day from a boat he was on.

The panes are installed in the pre-existing casement windows of the building there.

boutique railroad ties
These are not the railroad ties of the original High Line
Photo credit: Pickles of the North

Of course everything in the park is new, except for the rails, and it looks it. This is in stark contrast to the way that the High Line used to be. From the start it had been dirty, greasy and not aesthetically pleasing to most people who have any esthetics to please in the first place. So seeing these brand new pieces of bright, shiny lumber masquerading as railroad ties was rather a laugh for both of us. Pickles of the North and I have both had experience working on railroads and these are the cleanest railroad ties, called “sleepers” by some, that we've ever seen!

Will kids, or even inexperienced adults, think that this is what railroad tracks and their supporting structures really look like?

I suppose that most people won't notice any of this stuff and will just come up and enjoy the park, oblivious to the presence of objects placed there to remind them of the original purpose of the High Line.

At the E. 16th St. entrance there is the elevator that's installed so that the park is in conformance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. There are also some lavatories there. I didn't avail myself of that facility, but Pickles of the North did. She reported that the women's rest room was small but clean and in good working order. There was a guy there keeping both rest rooms clean while we were in the park.

There was also a guy standing right outside the entrances to the rest rooms and the handicapped elevator; he was obviously guarding the area. We were wondering about the guys in the green uniforms. None wore the Park Ranger hats that we see in some parks. As it turns out some are Park Rangers and some are security guards. The uniforms are basically the same but some folks in green uniforms are carrying around truncheons, handcuffs and mace so my guess is that they're not the ones who are concerned with the watering schedules for the various plants.

silly sign
As if any of this were still “wild!”

One thing that we saw all over the park were signs that said, “Keep it wild, keep on the path.”

There isn't anything wild up there!

I suppose that the folks in charge think that the signs are necessary in order to keep people from trampling the plantings. It's also very easy to trip over a railroad track and if you get your foot caught in one of those switches you are going to have to pay serious attention to extricating it, and may need help doing so. It's very easy to get your foot caught between two rails on a switch, and similarly easy to tear all manner of soft tissue in your knee and ankle if you try to remove it by force majeure. I can tell you from experience that falling down on a steel rail is no fun at all.

I wonder how the Parks Dept. will do in keeping the yuppies who are hyper-indulgent of their issue from letting the brats run wild among the small trees they've got planted among some of the decorative rails? And if any of the little darlings gets hurt their yuppy-mommy and yuppy-daddy will probably take the opportunity to teach them not that stupid actions can have painful consequences, but that everyone in the world is here to serve them and that when those people fail they are to be sued. Oh, the life lessons that are taught these days.

tracks in concrete
Reinstalled tracks in new concrete

At W. 17th St. the High Line Park crosses 10th Ave. So they have a sort of open air gallery there where you can sit down and look at 10th Ave. We'd noticed this thing on our walk down the avenue earlier.

At some times of day, from the outside, it can be hard to tell what you're seeing when you come upon this gallery. Are the people inside really there or is that some large video display? That was our quandary when we were out on the street.

From the inside you can see the seating arrangements and the window spanning 10th Ave. and all. The seats are benches and you can go right up to the window. It's actually a sort of odd arrangement.

It's a good thing that 10th Ave. is one way going north. Otherwise there might be some confusion for drivers who'd see people poised right at a level where they're used to seeing traffic signs and billboards.

There was a practical acknowledgment of a little design problem with this gallery when we were there. Along the east side of this gallery there's about a two foot wide ledge by the east side of the seating area. There was some of that orange netting that's used by construction companies to fence things off, or by police to corral people at demonstrations, draped over the end of that ledge to keep people off it. I can see where someone getting to the very end of such a ledge would have more than one way of falling down and getting injured.

At some points in this park there are some of the old rails completely embedded in concrete, so you can safely walk over them. They remind me a bit of the old trolly tracks that we used to have in Brooklyn, which were also embedded in concrete sometimes but which also had grooves for the flanges of the trolly car wheels to fit into. Only we old folks are going to remember those sights.

Empire State Building from the High Line Park
The Empire State Building from the High Line Park

Speaking of sights, one of the great things about the High line Park is that you can get angles on things that you couldn't easily get before. On this page I'm showing a view of the Empire State Building I got from the High Line on this visit. You can see the upper portions of the Empire State Building, where WBAI has its transmitter and antenna, and in the foreground you can see the upper parts of the General Theological Seminary on W. 21st St. The seminary buildings are well over a century old and form a nice contrast to the Art Deco style of the former tallest building in the world.

But there are a lot of other views to be had from the High Line Park that will be new to many of us. You can get nice shots down the various cross streets and here and there the Hudson River is viewable.

And folks know this is a good place to take photographs. When we were there it seemed like at least every other person had a digital camera, some were using film SLRs, some were using various types of video cameras and one crew of people there had an old, tripod mounted camera that took its photographs on glass plates!

R. Paul Martin getting photographs
R. Paul Martin taking photographs on the High Line
Photo credit: Pickles of the North

My wild guess is that by the middle of this Summer there will have been a million photographs taken of or from the High Line, there were that many people snapping away. I filled up a 1 GB SD card part way through our walk and got a lot of the way through a second one before we left.

Pickles of the North had her camera along too and she got this shot of me trying to get photographs without glares, flares or excessive highlights while shooting in the direction of the setting Sun. That's my hat that I'm using in an effort to shade the lens. I also have a lovely set of photographs of the inside of that hat gathered from occasions such as this.

In this shot I've climbed one of the exit-only steps to get higher up and capture something that then turned out not to be useful for this Web page. One of these days I may just post a whole bunch of the really messed up shots that I get. I could call it abstract art. No one will be able to figure out what objects in the real world those photographs are of.

While we were there the crowds were inclined to be pretty mobile for the most part. There were a lot of people up there but there were no traffic jams. That's not to say that trying to get a photograph of a particular part of the High Line or a view from a specific place on it was always easy. The final shot on this page, of the 20th St. end of the park, took a lot of waiting around while people milled about, relaxed against the gate, indulged their hyperactive children and generally got in my damned way! But this is life in the big city and one learns to put up with it. We've each got an equal right to be there and no one ever guaranteed me a clear shot at anything.

There are places where there's a tall, glass wall along the west side of the High Line Park. It's around here that I especially get the impression that the park is a very expensive planter for yuppies. Maybe someone wanted it to feel as if the visitor were in a terrarium in these places. I'm not sure why those glass walls are there. Perhaps there's an exhaust pipe nearby or maybe there tends to be weather out of the west that's particularly troublesome. Maybe it has something to do with protecting the plants at those places.

table and chairs
Little amenities are provided for the public's use

There are very skinny benches all over the park. I guess they're made to accommodate people with really skinny behinds. Some of the benches are wooden slats, made of politically correct Ipe wood of course, and there's a concrete ramp up to the side of the bench. It's a good thing that they don't allow skate boards up there or those things would be getting torn apart by guys who are rapidly approaching middle age running skate boards up and down them the way they've done to the benches and fountain down at the ass end of Wall St. park.

But there are also some things that look like wooden couches or chaise lounges for giants. We saw whole families and groups of friends camped out on some of those things.

And then they've got some little amenities like folding chairs and tin tables in some places. I think there's going to be some vending going on up there at some point so people will probably cluster around these places to sit around and eat snacks and drink whatever off the tables. It looks like it could be a nice place to be, on the off hours when the whole thing isn't so jammed that they have to restrict access.

uneven paving
Artistic paving waiting to trip people

At one point in the park right about at W. 14th St. they have a lower portion of the High Line that people were working on. I'm thinking that this will be a part of the park at some point. It'll certainly let folks get several feet closer to the ground there. Whether that'd be a good thing or not so good remains to be seen.

Right around this same area there is what I consider a stupid design flaw. In this part of the park the levels split. We had taken the lower route and then we tried the upper route. On the upper route we ran into these paving stones on the right.

These appear to be an attempt to have something more artsy than the regular, flat paving stones that form the promenade for the rest of the park. The way I discovered them was that I almost tripped and fell over them! They have a diagonal ridge running along them, and when several of these paving stones are arranged together they can form a pattern that someone must have felt was pleasing.

The ridges don't stick up all that much but if you're not expecting them to be there you can suddenly find your feet not being where you'd anticipated they be. Older folks especially may have problems with these paving blocks. Or anyone who's just looking at the sights while walking along the otherwise flat pavement could trip on these ridges. I just don't know why they'd put something like this in the public walkway.

Maybe the folks in charge of putting those paving stones there are young and don't realize that as we age eyesight, balance and reflexes do not improve at all. I hope they replace these visually nice but physically troublesome paving stones before someone gets hurt.

You can see one of the skinny benches I was talking about earlier in the upper left of that photograph, by the way.

Patty Heffley's fire escape/stage/laundry dryer
Drying laundry on Patty Heffley's fire escape
The stage of The Renegade Cabaret

So as we approached the current northern terminus of the High Line Park we noticed that one apartment was very close to it. In fact it looked like the fire escape for that apartment was almost on the High Line itself!

As you can see there was a bunch of laundry out on the fire escape drying when we were there. We also noticed that the fire escape on that whole building was accessible by real doors, as opposed to windows only as is the case with most apartments. This told us that we were looking at a pretty old building.

Pickles and I wondered aloud about how it was for whomever lived there to suddenly have loads of people outside their windows from seven o'clock in the morning to ten o'clock at night on most days. Previously they'd have been as isolated as any fourth floor apartment would be.

As it turns out we actually know the person who lives in that apartment! I've been in that apartment once.

It's where Patty Heffley, former Secretary of the WBAI Local Station Board and former Director on the Pacifica National Board from WBAI for 2005 and 2006, lives!

In fact not only does she live there, but that's her laundry we saw on the fire escape.

As it turns out the folks who built the High Line Park set up very bright spotlights on the walkway to the exit at 20th St. These light just happen to shine right into Ms. Heffley's apartment, and onto that fire escape.

So, Ms. Heffley has decided to start what she calls “The Renegade Cabaret” featuring singers on her fire escape, in those bright spotlights, on a nightly basis. Patty Heffley is the emcee and a woman named Elizabeth Soychak is the main singer.

This bit of unplanned entertainment has been welcomed by the visitors to the north end of the park, and the Parks Dept. and Friends of the High Line group don't seem to have a problem with it either, from what they say. It's the sort of thing that will happen in New York City for as long as the place is saturated with artists.

north end gate
The current north end of High Line Park at W. 20th St.

And, finally, our walk took us to the current end point of the High Line Park. This is at 20th St. and will remain so until the second section of the park is opened. The stated goal is to open the second section, which is to go up to W. 30th St., in the Fall of 2010.

The gate there isn't all that substantial but I think they have guards on the other side of it. Looking through the fence you can see that the paving already goes a number of blocks north of the current terminus. They still have lots of trailers and giant tool boxes up there. We saw some of that from the street level as we were walking down 10th Ave. earlier in the day.

So while the wealthy of Manhattan and the wealthy compared to us are the primary movers of this park it's certainly a nice place to visit. Something new. And new stuff is welcomed in an old city.

Pickles of the North and I will probably visit it again and maybe we'll get up there earlier in the day some time and sit around unemployed and enjoy the great outdoors to the music of diesel bus and truck engines, and the sight of ships entering and leaving the Hudson River piers.

The Friends of the High Line is currently trying to get the final few blocks of the High Line legally designated as a park so that they can expand the High Line Park up to the old railroad marshalling yards at W. 34th St. Currently a developer is planning to erect enormous buildings over the marshalling yards, and although the developer hasn't argued against converting that part of the High Line, which loops around the entire two city block long train yard up there, into a public park it would be best if they can get it all done legally so that the City of New York owns that particular property.

If they do get that part of the High Line for an extension on the already planned park it'll be quite an addition. The loop will allow for all sorts of great views of the Hudson River and mid-down Manhattan. In addition there might also be the possibility of providing a walkway to the Hudson River Park.

So there could even be some interesting future developments for this new park. If it all happens I hope I'm still around to go there and talk about it.

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