September 6, 2011

A Wish Come True

the High Line in the 1930s
Over Labor Day weekend my son and his girlfriend indulged a wish of mine --- they took me to the High Line Park in Manhattan.  I have long wanted to see this park which was restored along 2 miles of an abandoned elevated railroad track that used to bring freight and animals to the meat packing district of New York 75 years ago.
looking out from the High Line today

First, let me say that I cannot adequately describe its design and the mysterious pull it has on the walker.  James Golden has done that so much better than I ever could.  His long and thoughtful blog post is worth reading to really get the High Line's fascinating features.  Click on the link, you might like his detailed review as much as I enjoy poring over it.

I can just offer some random personal observations, which is all my blog has ever been about anyway.

Random observation number one: this park is all about the garden in time, evolving and changed.  That experience of transformation is what fascinates me about any garden, including my own.

Before it was a park, before it was designed and planted by Piet Oudolf and well known landscape designers, before there were elegant sweeps of grasses, copses of small trees and benches and paths and a bricked stream to wade in, it was a wasteland.
this is what nature planted, as seen in the 1990s
But what an interesting wasteland.  The tracks had been unused and were slated to be torn down, but over the years seeds blew onto the empty gravel and a wild meadow had fully established itself.  It's amazing to think of plant seeds whirling around in the air in the concrete, asphalt, stone and brick of New York City.  Where did they come from?  How did they get there? 

These photos from Joel Sternfeld are on the High Line Park's website, and they show what it looked like in the 1990s.

There are many wonderful galleries on the web site that show historical photos of the railroad when it was in use, then in its abandoned disrepair as the wild meadow took over, the planting and revival, and what it looks like now.

grasses and wildflowers are planted in the park now
This was not an open field, or an abandoned dirt lot that sprouted and grew.  It was all hardscape and gravel beds, iron rails and debris.  And it was all growing 30 feet in the sky, snaking above noisy streets, transforming itself without help from humans or New Yorkers.

Random observation number two: before the park restoration, it was an eyesore.  It was beautiful.  It was both.

That's the essence of gardens: your weedy mess is another's lovely natural space.  Converting the meadowy abandoned tracks into a public park with sculptures, walkways, artificial plantings and seating was not without controversy.

But having seen it myself, I can now say they did it well.  The Oudoulf aesthetic of grasses and prairie flowers, motion and soft colors makes it look only a step or two modified from the remarkable natural system that had established itself.  This is not a flowery cottage garden and it is certainly not a formal clipped hedge park.  It's sort of the same weedy natural space that was there, but now walkable and easily viewed.

The tracks were preserved and they are embedded in the wooden walkways and stone paths, or simply left among low ornamental grasses.
the tracks are preserved throughout
asters nestle in the grasses
from some angles it's not so different from the wild meadow that was there

Random observation number three: strolling around in the park is relaxing and disorienting at the same time.  You're up high, surrounded by even higher buildings, looking down on lower buildings and cars.  It's all wild, but it's all man made.  The exquisite tension of a really interesting garden is in full display here--- it is wildly natural and extremely artificial at the same time.
from High Line web site
There are trees up there, 30 feet above the street.  Sassafras trees, birches, magnolias.  They even planted oak trees.  This is on a railroad track in the air --- the soil depth is only 36 inches where they brought it in for the forest plantings, and only 18 inches where the grasses grow.  How is this going to work over time?
birch plantings
magnolias and shrubs
oak trees up here.  Really?
Some disorientation is deliberate, like the viewing area suspended over 10th Avenue, where you can sit on wooden benches in a tiered amphitheater and do a very New York thing: watch traffic through plate glass windows.  And traffic can watch you.
Or the end of the line at the Gansevoort Street entry --- it's very disorienting but oddly exciting where it just stops in mid air.
from High Line web site

Random observation number four:  it doesn't get any better than being squired about the big city by your amazingly competent adult children.  When did they grow up to be such interesting people?

You know, that is the real wish come true.


  1. I have seen this park on tv. You are lucky to be able to go see it in person. As you say, you got your most important wish granted.

  2. Laurrie,
    Glad to see you got there. Your point about the importance of disorientation seems an important one, and I like the examples you picked to show that. The photo of the abrupt end of the line at Gansevoort Street, looks almost surreal! It is a strange thing, and that tension between the natural (whatever that is) and the urban environment is a key to its success I think, and to the extraordinary feelings of exhilaration, almost over stimulation, it evokes. I really enjoyed this post.

  3. What a beautiful place! I love the contrast of prairie and urban. How neat that your children escorted you around NYC; I sometimes look at my children, too, and think "when did they grow up??"

  4. I've never heard of this spot before but I was delighted to see the photos through the years. Nature really is astounding isn't it? I would wonder where the seeds came from too in all that concrete but there it is, growing happily away in a few inches of soil. Truly remarkable.

  5. So nature is constantly seeking to impose itself upon man, and visa versa! And things are best when man and nature partner together. This is a very interesting garden. I wasn't familiar with it. The photo of its sudden stopping point is shocking and beautiful.

  6. I've only recently learned about this park. How fascinating!! But trees in 3 ft of soil? I'd love to hear the long term rationale for that one. I wonder if the roots will grow more hortizontally since they can't grow down. You and your kids look happy! :o)

  7. The trees look good now, but like those planted over parking structures in 3 feet of soil, will be stressed over time and stunted. It will be difficult for them to gain the water necessary in balance with their size, like the oak for instance. When they get top heavy in leaf, the wind will take its toll. I am just basing this on previous parking structure plantings but maybe they have these problems solved in some way that I am not aware.

  8. Lisa, I am indeed lucky, and I know it!

    James, thanks for stopping by here. I read a lot about this park since its inception in '09, and I think your essay about your first visit is still the best!

    Rose, it is hard to really show the prairie look in this urban setting; somehow it comes out looking weedy.

    Marguerite, considering the park was opened in 2009 and they plants are growing in such shallow soil, I am amazed at how full and lush it all is.

    Deborah, nature and man each imposing their wills on each other ... that's a garden!

    Tammy, of all the exceptional things about this park it is the idea of the soil being brought up there and the limited depth that baffles me.

    Donna, I do hope they have it figured out. My husband thinks they will just replant trees and larger shrubs every few years so they are always small and to scale in this space. I wonder.

  9. Observation four is my absolute favorite ... having competent grown children of my own.

    The line "And it was all growing ... without help from humans or New Yorkers," garnered a laugh-out-loud.

    I've yet to visit this park but it's on my want-to do list. Thanks for the preview, and for the laugh.

  10. What a great post! Your comments are so interesting and the whole idea of this place is fascinating. I love Piet Oudoulf's work, although his style is not at all suited to my garden. As for the 3 feet of soil - I have 12 inches over solid granite in some places, so I wish... but I agree it's probably not enough for oak trees.

  11. What a great treat to visit this garden in the good company of your adult children. I have seen this garden in a number of settings and would love to visit it myself someday. (I am always up for any trip to New York!) Your personal observations are interesting. It as always struck me as wildly natural and extremely artificial all at the same time.

  12. Joene, I hope you get to the High Line for a visit!

    Lyn, thanks for visiting here. It will be interesting to see how these trees grow in 3 feet of soil. I plan to go back to check!

    Jennifer, A trip to NY can include so much to do, but put the High Line on your list for sure.

  13. I lived on the Upper West Side, just up the street from the rail line, from 1977 until 1996, when I returned to my hometown. That whole section of the neighborhood was an ugly mess and I was so happy to know that the battle for it was won by a garden!!! I've been back to New York since it was completed, but never during the season. Thanks for your insightful comments and pictures.


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