On opening day of The High Line, Section 2, two women, in particular, were beaming: New York City Planning Director and Chair of the City Planning Commission, Amanda Burden, who for 11 years has nursed this public-private project to fruition, and Lisa Tziona Switkin, Associate Partner and Managing Director of the firm — James Corner Field Operations — that designed and landscaped this innovative urban park, in conjunction with architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro.
As Burden pointed out, the High Line’s return on investment for the city has been enormous. In addition to the $2 billion of private investment in the area, it’s become a magnet for world-class architects, all of whom want to build in this raw, gritty and cutting-edge neighborhood. The Whitney’s plan for a new, downtown museum, designed by Renzo Piano, is but one recent example. But on a more personal level, Burden burbled happily about, “the quality and diversity of people drawn to the High Line, to stroll, sit, hangout, read and people watch. It creates both an intimate and intense experience.”
Running a mile long, and encompassing three neighborhoods, this elevated garden in the sky has become a tourist magnet of unfathomable proportions – more than four million visitors have come to the High Line since it opened in 2009, and cities around the globe are eager to imitate it.
The landscape challenge for Corner and Switkin, who have been working on Section 2 for two years, was to bring visual variation to a long, narrow stretch of corridor that runs between West 20th and West 30th Streets, and is lined with a number of buildings pressing up on either side of the park. Their solution was to create, as Switkin put it, “a series of episodes,” staged spaces that unfold to create different settings for social life, defined by different types of vegetation and designed outcrops.
So we move from a prairie-like landscape, Chelsea Grasslands, to the Chelsea Thicket, a dense planting of flowering shrubs and small trees — Sassafras, redbud and Viburnum — between 20th and 23rd Street. Then we head north to a wider area between 22nd and 23rd Street, where the architects designed a block-long, Sun Lawn, preceded by elegant, minimalist Seating Steps made from reclaimed teak. This large, delicious stretch of grass — where visitors are encouraged to take their shoes off and walk, sit, picnic or just stretch out — “peels up” at its northern end, offering unique views of Brooklyn to the east and the Hudson River and New Jersey to the west. This is a good area to meet friends, picnic and hang out.
Between 25th and 26th Streets there is The Falcone Flyover (named after the donors Philp A. and Lisa Maria Falcone). This section elevates visitors eight feet above the High Line and moves them through what will eventually become a canopy of Big-Leaf and Sweet-Bay Magnolias. The leggy magnolias with their huge, floppy leaves will create an atmosphere of “strange surrealism,” according to landscape architect Corner.
At 26th Street, there is a Viewing Spur, where tall shrubs and trees flank a painted steel frame that recalls the old billboards once attached to the railroad line. It is a lookout that now “frames” 10th Avenue and the Chelsea-Elliot Houses for High Line visitors. Behind the frame, seating steps invite visitors to sit, chat, have lunch and enjoy the view.
A Wildflower Field, with drought-resistant grasses and wildflowers, lines the walkway between 26th and 29th Streets, and echoes Joel Sternfeld photographs of the pre-High Line railroad yards, with its natural wildlife vegetation. Then the High Line curves towards the Hudson River and a long bank of teak benches, known as the Radial Bench, curves with it.
Finally, at the end of Section 2, we have The 30th Street Cut-Out, where the path slowly rises, showcases the High Line’s steel frame and allows visitors to peer down at the beams and girder below, which form their own structural beauty.
The Lot at 30th Street is a new temporary public plaza under the High Line with food trucks, beer and wine, public art and free events. In addition, to the right of the High Line at 30th Street, AOL is presenting Rainbow City, a collection of inflatable sculptures by FriendsWithYou, a Miami-based arts collaboration, which will serve as an urban playground and site for free educational programs.
To enter and leave the High Line, there are elevators at 16th and 30th streets as well as nine staircase entrances: Gansevoort Street, 14th, 16th, 18th, 20th, 23rd, 26th and 30th Streets.
Other unique visual pleasures include two delightful Sarah Sze site-specific installations, “Still Life With Landscape,” that are both wood-and-steel sculptures echoing the materials and openness of the High Line, and totally charming birdfeeders.
Also not to be missed is a “sound installation,” by Julianne Swartz, “Digital Empathy.” Computer-generated voices at various sites – including the water fountains – will recite jokes, deliver messages, love songs and poetry. When I bent down to take a sip of water, a digitized voice said, “Hi, are you living your life to its fullest?” It’s a hoot.
There are a number of events planned for the High Line. For a full rundown, go to the Friends-of-the-High-Line website, mark your calendars, bring a picnic and plenty of sunscreen and take a stroll yourself.
All Photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag