Everybody loves the High Line
We do, too.
We strolled. We sat. We studied the skyline. We took pictures. We watched the daily sport below. We soaked up the sun. We puttered around the plants.
Our son loves the High Line, too. He is not a plant person, but he makes a point of walking the mile and a half corridor on evenings when he is in New York on business. (He probably moves more quickly than we did.)
That’s the fun of the High Line. You can go at your own pace. It’s a world apart from the bustle below.
Yet you remain connected to the life of the city through this slice of green, its patterns of pavement and plants never quite letting you forget you are still trackside.
But what a difference today from the original! “Death Avenue” was the name people gave 10th Avenue during the 19th and early 20th centuries, when street level trains brought milk, meat and produce from the country down to Spring Street near the southern tip of the city.
So many people were killed in accidents, cowboys rode shotgun with the trains, substituting flags, however, for revolvers to warn pedestrians away.
In 1934 the city opened an elevated West Side Line with direct offloading to businesses.
Deliveries were less deadly but traffic withered a half-century later, as interstate trucking made inroads. The line lay fallow for thirty years, host to hardy weeds and a prodigiously fruiting apple tree, while people lobbied against demolition.
Two residents of the neighborhood had a grand idea. If weeds can grow, why not something more special.
By 1999 Friends of the Highline is founded to raise money, lobby politicians and nurture the project.
Tracks are donated to the City for preservation.
Ten years later the southernmost section opens and five years after that the park sees nearly 5 million visitors annually.
You can’t miss the sliced-off railroad tracks suspended thirty feet in mid-air at the Gannesvoort Street entrance to the High Line.
Climb the stairs and you enter a woodland of gray birches and a folly with ferns and tufty perennials beneath.
It’s shady here, but we soon emerge into full sun and we begin to understand the scope of the project.
The entire walk has the lovely, spontaneous grace of an organized weed patch. Oxymoron? Maybe. But each island or ribbon of plants is thoroughly planned to look like the plants came along with the tracks.
And many of them have. Because, in that setting those plants were pleasing and resilient, and there was lots of variety. They weren’t “invader” plants that disrupted a formal garden.
So, taking lessons from fields and roadsides, landscapers, many of them in Europe, began to experiment with natural plantings, “designing with weeds,” if you will.
Paper-and-pencil designs for public places, though, need drama and presuppose maintenance.
As gardeners, we appreciate the technical how-to’s and what-to’s that contribute to a successful planting: soils and substrate, irrigation, drainage, lighting and, finally, choice of plants.
What is a plant’s style? Tufty, or rambly? How fast does it grow? Will it malinger in tough conditions? Will it be a bully? Will it seed around?
Will it compete well? In what season, or seasons, does it shine?
We ask the same questions when we buy plants for our own gardens. So I was delighted to spot garden friends as I walked along the High Line.
(They may be called “wildflowers” and “grasses” in today’s botanical lingo, but some of them still grow like weeds.)
Shoulder-to-shoulder plantings here discourage unwanted companions, though I suspect most weeds here come from the plantings themselves.
Focal points (like that old, bearing apple tree, now memorialized, among the track weeds) lead us along, cause us to turn a corner, or give us pause.
Landscape designers may have put these rails to trails on the map, but day-to-day it’s a corps of gardeners, volunteer and paid, who maintain the integrity of the High Line. It’s a challenge to work inconspicuously considering large crowds and long visitation hours.
It takes a willingness to work hard, attention to detail, and knowledge.
We thank them for their dedication.
There is a certain serenity about driving along a country road where wild plants mingle and jostle along the verge, some in bloom, most not.
You barely notice them, they are simply there, working their quiet magic.
That’s kinda what the High Line is like. A little bit of magic along the path. Maybe that’s why everybody loves the High Line. Maybe that’s why we do, too.