An Irishwoman's Diary

 

WHILE I was visiting New York recently, my friend suggested that I join her as a volunteer on Michael Bloomberg’s re-election campaign. Better not, I thought. My previous experience of such work had been both brief and inglorious. When Mary Robinson ran for president, I offered to drive voters to the polls. As it turned out, I had only one passenger. Just as well, for as I helped him out of the car, the elderly man dented my enthusiasm by announcing that he was now going to vote for Brian Lenihan. It was the way he added darkly that he’d changed his mind that set off the twinge of guilt: had I said something wrong?

At the Bloomberg Headquarters, I did attend a briefing for leaders of the African community, now one of the fastest growing in the city. They were exercised that the campaign had not produced a separate poster for them, on the lines of those targeted to a huge range of groups, from Albanians to Venezuelans. As newly arrived immigrants (apart from respect for their differences from African Americans), what they wanted most of all were good schools and support for small businesses: both important themes of Bloomberg’s earlier terms of office.

Of another leading theme, to enhance culture and amenities, to make the city a better place to live, they said nothing. Understandably, these measures matter more to groups who have moved further away from the urgencies of survival. African-born New Yorkers of today may not as yet prioritise initiatives like the High Line. Their children and grandchildren undoubtedly will.

The High Line is a new public park on the Lower West Side, in the Meatpacking district, which reinvents and transforms a disused freight railway. From the 1850s to the 1930s, accidents involving on-street freight trains in this busy industrial district were so frequent that 10th avenue was known as Death Avenue. West Side cowboys rode in front of the trains waving red flags. In 1929, the trains were moved to a railroad above the street, where they swung through the middle of blocks and straight to the upper floors of buildings, to deliver meat, milk, manufactured goods and mail.

After the last consignment (three wagons of frozen turkeys) went through in 1980, the abandoned railway fell quiet. It became a wild meadow intersected by rusting rails. In 1999, when it was threatened with demolition, two local residents, Joshua David and Robert Hammond, sought support from the city to preserve and maintain it as an elevated public park, inspired by the Promenade Plantée in Paris. In 2002, Mayor Bloomberg’s administration gave financial backing to the project, and the decision to demolish was reversed. A multi-disciplinary team was selected in 2004 and 2006 saw, a literally ground-breaking event, and the first section, from

Gansevoort Street to 20th Street, opened to the public last June.

The entry from Gansevoort Street is all cobblestones, girders and riveted stairs. Graphic designers, photographers, fitness centres and luxury boutiques have moved in to a neighbourhood first dominated by “the butcher in his killing clothes,” of whom Walt Whitman sang, and in the 1980s and 1990s by seedier trades. More transformation is on the way: this is the site for the new Renzo Piano – designed Whitney Museum of American Art. It is scheduled to open in 2012.

Part of the High Line’s charm is that it isn’t all that high: just 30 feet above the street. Like a train line, it lets you catch views otherwise hidden: the layered skyline of buildings from many periods, slices of the Hudson waterfront, traffic flow from under your seat in the tiered amphitheatre that bridges 10th Avenue.

This last gives a whole new meaning to the words “street theatre”. Still a work in progress; the High Line is a place of wild grasses and hard steel. Care was taken to reincorporate many of the tracks, the Art Deco railings, and to pay special homage to the tender and tenacious plants which, over 25 years, self-seeded along the rail bed. Moor grasses and milkweed spring up between smooth concrete planks, which are tapered to allow them to flourish. It’s a series of microclimates, with the plants arranged according to all the variables that affected them in the wild: depth of soil, sun and shade, wind and shelter. Whitman saluted these prairie grasses also: “those of the open atmosphere, coarse, sunlit, fresh, nutritious . . . those of inland America”.

I found it an especially happy spot for thoughtful meandering. Merely by following the contours of the old railroad, it offers unexpected alternations of closed and open, wide and narrow, tame and wild, manmade and organic. The detail is exquisite: pencil thin light sticks, unobtrusive lighting over the pale gravel.

At the 14th street deck, I found it hard to move on from the ample teak chaises angled to face the Hudson and the sunset. Here, the walkway is a congenial eight feet wide: elsewhere it’s between 30 and 60.

Around me, people were reading, sketching, gossiping, flirting, texting and snoozing. My point of view altered, as the view across piers 53 and 57 to the Jersey shore increased my awareness of being on an island.

In 1914, the Italian Futurist architect Sant’ Elia published plans for his Citta Nuova, traversed by terraces, bridges and aerial walkways. The High Line has something of the lightness and elasticity he was aiming for, and it’s also like the structures that Spiderman climbs.

The Promenade Plantée in Paris served as a model of how to reuse old railway lines. It is more symmetrical and manicured than the High Line.

Inevitably, everywhere the distinctive character of such abandoned places will vary. Yet everywhere reclamation, partnership and ecology will be the watchwords. Allowing for differences in scale and resources, every city presents similar opportunities.