Debra Prinzing

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Field trip: New York’s High Line Park

March 24th, 2011

The High Line is NYC's newest public space.

I spent about 48 hours in New York City last week, staying at my favorite bed and breakfast at West 81st Street and Columbus Avenue on the Upper West side.

I mistakenly scheduled the visit to coincide with St. Patrick’s Day, one of the many days when people in Manhattan go crazy, whether they are Irish or not.

Yet, the weather was “pure spring” – certainly milder than we have had in Seattle lately – and my spirits were lifted just getting off the subway from JFK to the city.

My objective for stopping through NYC on my way to speak in Toronto was to meet some editors face-to-face and to spend time with some very dear friends. I had a half-day “free” and unscheduled, so last Thursday morning I hopped the downtown C Train across the street from Central Park and rode it to West 23rd Street. My destination: the nearly two-year-old public park called The High Line.

You’ve probably read about this amazing public-private endeavor – an elevated park that runs along 10 to 12 blocks on a former 1930s freight track high above Tenth Avenue between Chelsea and the Meat Packing District. I’ve read lots about it, too. But for a landscape design and horticulture observer like me, nothing compares to the first-person tour.

A true sign of spring: Viburnum x bodnantense 'Pink Dawn'

Wonderful witch hazel in bloom.

When I had dinner the night before with my talented NYC go-to-gals, Ellen Spector-Platt and Ellen Zachos, co-creators of the popular NYC gardening blog Gardenbytes, they gave me some tips on where to disembark from the subway (23rd Street Stop) and warned me that not much would be in bloom.

Blooms were not essential, yet I did enjoy spotting crocuses, witch hazel and a couple beautiful flowering ‘Pink Dawn’ viburnum shrubs showing off in the warm, spring sun.

The edgy, industrial setting was just as delightful to my eyes. The rails of this RR-in-the-sky last carried a train of frozen turkeys in 1980.

Over the ensuing decades nature has had her way with the long-abandoned site. According to the High Line web site, its designers selected plants to “echo the wild, self-seeded landscape that grew up on the structure after the trains stopped running.” The landscape was designed by James Corner Field Operations in partnership with Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

A beautiful grove of trees, planted between the rails.

The origins of this reimagined public space can be traced to 1999, when community residents founded Friends of the High Line, the nonprofit public conservancy that today operates under a license agreement with the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation.

The forward-thinking citizen group fought for preservation and transformation at a time when the historic structure was under threat of demolition. Friends of the High Line now provides approximately 70 percent of its annual operating budget and is responsible for both stewardship of the park and its public programs.

Beginning my tour at the northernmost entrance on West 20th Street, I climbed the steps and arrived to see a new view of the Hudson River and surrounding buildings. Light and airy, the park’s design has retained original crisscrossing steel tracks where groves of trees, shrubs and grasses are planted. The main walkway, which is wheelchair and stroller-friendly, appears to be formed by staggered bands of granite that emulate railroad tracks and also accommodate soft vegetation.

Even parks in major metropolises can be "QUIET"

Look up: it's a park!

Plenty of seating encourages people to rest, admire the scenery or eat a sandwich.

I happened upon a group of schoolchildren on a class tour near the bleacher-style amphitheatre where public performances often take place. A docent held a sign that read QUIET, and I smiled as I overheard her telling the children that the designers wanted to create a place where the noise of the city streets wasn’t so powerful. You know, quiet is one of the strongest sensations I experienced on my visit.

The juxtaposition of a park-in-the-sky with a city’s hustle-and-bustle down below seemed to amplify the silence. And I envy those folks in Manhattan who can visit The High Line whenever they want.

4 Responses to “Field trip: New York’s High Line Park”

  1. Beth Evans-Ramos Says:

    We were in NYC for part of a week last June for our son’s wedding. We visited the Meatpacking District and really enjoyed our stroll on the High Line. Everything about it was splendid – the sense of being elevated over the hubbub, the landscaping and how it intertwined with the hip hotels. Next time I’d like to walk it again, end to end. I’ll have to get the name of your fave B & B since it sounds like it is darn close to where our son and daughter-in-law live on the upper West Side. Hope your gig in Toronto was swell too!

    Hi Beth – thanks for your comment. You have a nose for hip-ness and style, so it’s no wonder you visited the High Line. And PS, my fav B&B is Jack & Judy’s Bed and Breakfast at 130 West 81st Street.

  2. Jeannette Says:

    Wow, I love the trees planted between the rusty train tracks. I am a “Trash the Dress” photographer and would love a location like that in the UK. What on earth is “Trash the Dress” I hear you cry. well…. it is a type of photo shoot for a bride in unusual locations. An old barn, a rust old farm tractor or any location that gives contrast to the lovely bride. Rough with the smooth, clean with the dirty, old with the new. you get the idea now.
    If you want to see some photos, click my link. and click “Trash the Dress”
    Have a nice day!


    Hi Jeannette – thanks for the info! You need to start photographing brides in fields of locally-grown flowers, too. Check out my other site, for inspiration, Debra

  3. sharon Lovejoy Says:

    Hi dear Deb,

    How’d it go in Toronto? I just returned from Kentucky where I spoke at the Arboretum Founder’s Lecture. The people were great and the venue was perfect. I loved every minute there.

    I’ve always wanted to walk the High Line and to gab a bit with Dos Ellens. Glad you got the chance to spend some time with them.

    All love and a big hug to my peripatetic friend,

    Sharon Lovejoy Writes from Sunflower House and a Little Green Island

    P.S. Nan Sterman carried my GWA Gold Award up to the party at Rebecca Sweet’s house. Hurrah! Now I do believe that I won it. Wonderful-and I so adore Nan and miss seeing her and YOU!

  4. Ella C Says:

    Indeed, folks in Manhattan really fortunate. The High Line Park is awesome, the fact that an urban park in New York City can be as soothing to me as a national park in pastoral Utah is a testament to the success of the design!

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