Thursday, May 2, 2013

A Garden High on New York City

Many ways of looking at the High Line, the new high-on-life public park on the site of a long-gone elevated train line.
            More people gather there in one place, well one long place -- 30 blocks? we never reached the end of it -- than venture into most cities all weekend.
            You know how great it is to go to the top of some tall building and then look out at the skyline, the rooftops, the buildings, streets and tiny people below from the superior point of view of putting all the world's smaller things in their place? The High Line offers that. Only it's not one elevated point of view. It's a moving perspective that changes every few steps.
            Somewhere well south of 23rd Street, but I can't recall if we're down to 14th St. yet, someone calls out "look to your left." And there, that strangely familiar tower with the gracefully curving point on top, turns out to the the Empire State Building. You look a little further, below the 14th Street stairway now, and off to your right is an more strangely familiar figure with a pointy hat holding a torch in the air. Someone says, "That can't be the Statue of Liberty!" But it is.
            Like people watching? You don't have to position yourself on a street corner or a park bench and pretend to be doing something else. All the people on that busy street corner climb up the stairs and rubber-neck along with you.
            It's almost too crowded. On a particularly inviting mild spring Saturday afternoon, judging from the amount of gaping and pointing and exclaiming going on -- not all of it by us -- many, many people chose to make their first visit to the High Line. What percentage of the country's total population -- and, comparatively, what percent of the total number visitors to New York City -- will eventually pay that first visit to the High Line? Later, when the day's travels took us close to Central Park in midtown, I was almost surprised to see that folks were relatively thick on the ground there too. Not to mention the Sikh music festival (many guys in lavender turbans) that closed down Madison Avenue.
            Much closer than the famous landmarks visible on the skyline -- including the Flatiron Building and a host of others Anne's parents knew the names of -- some new architectural conversation pieces loom right up against the High Line. One of them is a tall rectangle with a shiny glass facade. You could throw pink rubber ball against it, and enjoy the mirrored moment. Given the nearness of the objects and activity on the walkway, any sort of mirror would produce interesting light effects. But this building is also partially clad in big patches of rust-orange panels of indescribable shape, color and material that suggested to me the look of the rusty tan-orange mold that grows prominently on certain rock formations in the woods. It's a memorable look, with the strangeness of contemporary art.
            Art does happen here. Somebody organized a collection of sculptures suggested perhaps by actual figures or types in the urban landscape. The umbrella title for these is "Busted." Not sure why. They're not exactly busts. The one I photographed is long and skinny-legged like a Giacometti.
            The place is actually a garden too.
            The old rails are incorporated into most of of the -- let's call them beds, the lateral spaces that run alongside the walking path, generally on both sides. A lot of this space is filled with cement paving of an interesting repeated pattern that suggests it might have been lifted from something functional, but I can't imagine what. The pattern looks like the extended fingers of one hand, with the space between the fingers filled with dirt; and the dirt filled with plants. Lots of spring bloomers, from daffodils in some places to stunning young ornamental trees whose tightly packed pink blossoms flow directly out of the principal transverse branches.
            The floral color was very strong, enough to make me wonder a little what they would do in mid-summer when these spring perennials stop blooming. Judging from what's there now I feel pretty sure they have a plan.
            Even a little music. A man sits among the people, bowing the long string of a Japanese stringed instrument. Another plays hand-drums along with a drum tape. A little boy sits in on a couple of drums and plays them shockingly well.
            It's a fresh set of eyes on the city.
            It's both something new to look at. And someplace new from which to look at everything else that's always been here. Only some of it is new, and some of it might as well be, because you've never see it before.
            Almost everything works. Almost. The city installed some fancy elevators across the street from the stairways to take folks who need a lift up to the High Line. The reason they're not working, the sign tells us, is they were damaged by Superstorm Sandy.
            That was six months ago. The existence of the sign lets you that the bureaucracy is working even if the elevators aren't. Given the number of people there last weekend, they could probably take up a collection and get the things fixed.