Culture Zohn: I Walk the (High) Line

07/01/2009 12:03 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Just when you thought New York was down on its luck and was being demoted to the downfall capital, when Bernie Madoff was being sentenced to twice the average life span, when the politicians like Bloomberg, Klein, Patterson were fighting to hang onto their jobs, when restaurants were seducing diners with early bird specials, when arts organizations were carefully picking their way through a summer prediction of half empty houses, along came The High Line.


Gansevoort Woodland at Night, Aerial View from Gansevoort Street to West 13th Street, looking South

Wow. A wondrous and dynamic urban space, make that corridor, make that boardwalk, make that people mover, make that sundeck (which reminded me of the Paris Plage, and another answer to the Hamptons), make that theater, a melding of brilliant yet self-effacing architecture, design, landscape and people-watching all rolled into one.


Sundeck Water Feature and Preserve, between West 14th Street and West 15th Street, looking South

On a night when the air was perfectly clear, the sun was setting, the boats were circling Manhattan, and a genius wind was caressing, there really could be no finer place in all the land.

How did this miracle-gro happen? A combination of public and private pushed this baby up the hill, through the weeds of the city and state, an indefatigable group of Friends and Family that had the vision to turn an abandoned elevated rail bed into one of the most stunning world-class walks, a promenade that lets you get up close to all our different species of building, introduces you to plant materials that form a heavenly spread of green and purple and lets you mingle with your friends and loved ones at a leisurely pace of your own.


Chelsea Grasslands, between West 19th Street and West 20th Street, looking North

Wetlands, woodlands, grasslands, the High Line has something for everyone, yet makes it seem as if its been pushing up through the granite forever. It's wood and concrete looks utterly pristine, and I reminded Patrick Cullina, the Veep of Horticulture and Park Operations who does indeed stroll chest-puffed-out-to-there to watch his babies grow, that like with a new car, that first scratch is always the hardest to bear.

But Cullina who has been tending to this creation for the last year is willing to share its narrows and its wides with equal affection. Within the span of Gansevoort Street to 20th Street above 10th avenue he not only points out town squares and three star Michelin overlooks but special plants he is coaxing and new buildings by Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel which are seen from their friendliest, humanistic perspective, not too close and 1/3 the way up so that we do not feel intimidated. Cullina is eager to dream about movie and theater performances, fabulous food and drink service, classes for teenagers and children, an endless cornucopia of urban delight.

And when you are with him on a night like last night, you believe it could all come true. It is a park to rival Central Park, not in its vast greenswards and capacious rolling landscapes and tennis courts and jogging trails, but in its perfect mix of hardscape hill and dale that has been made as friendly as possible to the passer-by.


Northern Spur Preserve, between West 16th Street and West 17th Street, looking South towards the Statue of Liberty

The High Line has points of access every two blocks and already the extension past 20th Street is visible at the end grate, the very youngest plant shoots waiting patiently for their proud poppa to get them going. The planners don't seem to mind if you go down either by elevator or stair to check out distractions like the Standard Hotel groovy elevator or the Chelsea Market or the retail shops below because they know you will want to come back up. They want you to linger on benches that look organically extruded from the wood or pavement, life forms of their own, or on the risers of a theater-like space whose current production is 10th avenue in all its funky glory or on a double wide chaise lounge in a water park.

Cullina, the architects Diller Scofidio+ Renfro and James Corner Field Operations and Piet Oudolf and civic leaders like the Mayor, John Alschuler , Chair of Friends of the High Line, Robert Hammond and Josh David, the visionaries, and so many others are to be commended for this enormous gift to all of us.


Gansevoort Woodland, Gansevoort Street to Little West 12th Street, looking South

The opening of the first section of the High Line, from Gansevoort Street to 20 Street, will be followed by the completion of construction and public opening of Section 2, from 20th Street to 30th Street, in 2010. The High Line closes at 10pm.