I don’t think that I have spent so much time somewhere with so little greenery for a long time. With the exception of Central Park, Manhattan is a remorseless mix of shades of grey and brown, with few open spaces. It is a vibrant and exciting place, but there is little respite from the noise and energy that come as part of the package. James Baldwin captured the essence of Manhattan well in his 1962 novel Another Country: “It was a city without oases, run entirely, insofar, at least, as human perception could tell, for money; and its citizens seemed to have lost entirely any sense of their right to renew themselves”. That made today’s visit to the High Line in Chelsea all the more welcome. I’ve written before about the importance of green places in cities (see “More things we’ve forgotten to remember and “A brief diversion to South Korea“) and the High Line fits into that same category of industrial heritage reimagined and reclaimed as a “green lung” for the local community.
The High Line was, originally, an elevated railway line in lower Manhattan that has been converted into a narrow public park winding its way from the Meatpacking District through Chelsea, offering views across Manhattan and over the Hudson River towards New Jersey. Alongside the path, patches of vegetation – various shades of formal horticulture and semi-wild / feral growths – poke through the old railway lines. If I lived in lower east Manhattan this would be the place where I would head for a jog, or just to wander alone with my thoughts for an hour, away from the hustling city around me.
The High Line, looking north, May. 2014
Central Park, too, is a rather wonderful place but that is more established. The High Line shows the creativity of a new post-industrial generation, unlocking the potential of derelict and decaying infrastructure. I may have said this before, so excuse the repetition, but ecologists are often too focused on conservation of the remote and the rare whereas some of the most valuable actions we can perform is to bring some nature – not necessarily the finest or best – within the reach of everyone.
Central Park looking south towards midtown Manhattan. May 2014.
I am, to be honest, a little tired of skyscrapers already. The older Art Deco structures have a certain charm but they seem to be crowded out by the taller, more functional modern skyscrapers. Individually they may be ugly but, when viewed together (what is the collective noun for a group of skyscrapers?), there is a grandeur. Maybe the effect it has on me simply reflects the ubiquity of the Manhattan skyline in modern culture but, viewed from the Staten Island Ferry, in particular, all those buildings crowded together on that narrow strip of land have an undeniable presence.
And an absence. There are still information boards in Brooklyn that name the various skyscrapers that you can see and which include the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
Ground Zero is now the National September 11 Memorial, with two huge pools filling the footprints of each of the two towers, each 10 metres below street level and fed by water cascading down their sides. In the middle of each pool there is another cascade taking the water even deeper below the ground. New buildings loom overhead, including One World Trade Center, which has now replaced the Twin Towers as New York’s highest building, but it is these two enormous voids amidst all the skyscrapers that attracts attention.
The great achievement of the architects, however, is the personalisation of the memorial. The names of all the victims of the attacks are inscribed on the parapets that surround the pools and people – families and friends, I presume – have wedged white roses into the lettering of their loved ones’ names. It was hard enough to capture the epic scale of both the pools and the surrounding towers in a photograph with the limited range of a compact camera. It was just about possible to photograph some of these personal touches But it was almost impossible to capture both at the same time. Yet it was the juxtaposition of the grand gesture and the very highly personal that gave the Memorial its power. The last time I was so moved by modern architecture was at at the Jewish Museum in Berlin. Coincidence? Probably not. The architect Daniel Libeskind was involved with both.