Debra Prinzing

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Field trip: New York’s High Line Park

Thursday, 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.

Tree Houses (Huts? Sheds?) in Manhattan

Monday, November 17th, 2008

Alerted by my British shed-pal Alex Johnson, of,  to news that a village of tree houses had sprung up in Manhattan’s Madison Square Park, I was determined to see the spectacle with my own eyes. While in NYC for a brief 48 hour visit last weekend, I added a stop at this midtown Manhattan public exhibit of sheds-in-trees.

My son, Ben, and I spent 2 days in New York, en route home from a not-so-happy occasion (my mother-in-law’s funeral). The exposure to theater and art was a welcome respite. Last Sunday, before departing to take the train out to JFK Airport, we squeezed in a subway ride on the Downtown R train to 23rd Street & Fifth Avenue.

Emerging from underground into the beautiful autumn weather, we crossed the street and entered a verdant, 6.2-acre patch in the heart of urban hustle. Looking up, built around the trunks and suspended amid branches of six or seven tall shade trees, we spied the underneath sides of the Tree Huts. While quite humble, constructed with an apparent lack of precision from 2-by-4s and nails, each little hut seems perfect in its imperfection. The mere essentials of shelter are provided: roof overhead; floor beneath; walls to protect; window or doorway for access and light. All that is missing is a rope ladder or steps made by pieces of lumber nailed up the tree trunks. I was eager to scramble the heights and enter one of these engaging structures!