The High Line Part I

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.

Lunch, anyone? People soak up sun and watch the show on the streets below

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.

The “boxcar” building and tufts of grass conjure images of yesterday’s tracks

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, substituted waving flags for warning shots.

Sumac, planted today for its vibrant reds in fall, was once a pioneer on the tracks. Here it is underplanted with allium and amsonia

In 1934 the city opened an elevated West Side Line with direct offloading to industry and business.

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.

Smokebush, an outstanding accent, was in bloom when we were there in June

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.

Gray birch surround a folly planted with ferns and perennials. Colorful lounging lizards that conjure gummy bears give us a chuckle

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.

When roses last in the rail yard bloomed. . .

And many of them have. Because, in that setting those plants were survivors, resilient, good competitors. On the tracks, they weren’t annoying invaders because there was no formal garden to disrupt.

So, taking lessons from fields and roadsides, landscapers — many in Europe — began to experiment with natural plantings, “designing with weeds,” if you will.

Paper-and-pencil designs, even “weedy” plans for public places still presuppose maintenance and a budget to match.

Crabapples, though part of a planned planting, grew wild along the tracks

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 seasons will it put on a show?

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.

Echinacea, or coneflower rambles with us along the trail

(They may be called “wildflowers” and “grasses” in today’s gardening 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, give structure,  lead us along, cause us to turn a corner, or give us pause.

Mystery plant (to me). Wouldn’t I love to have it!

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.

Nearby roof garden is competing with the show below

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.

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1 Response to The High Line Part I

  1. Susan from New Hampshire writes: “I’m enjoying your New York blog posts! If I’m not mistaken your mystery perennial at the highline is Bowman’s Root – Gillenia trifoliata. Comes in a variety with pink flowers too. Had one of each a long time ago but neither really did anything for me. Seeing your pic makes me wish they had worked out.” Susan

    Thanks, Susan, for the ID. Glad you’re enjoying the posts.

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