High Times

Opening weekend for the High Line, Manhattan’s latest, most expensive new playground, is a mob scene: a line of cabs and SUVs blocks long throng the streets of the Meatpacking District, which, full for once, seem almost grateful to be receiving as much attention as they did when trucks filled with carcasses from somewhere west of the Hudson trundled down them without reproach from sleeping neighbors. Even still, these days, every Jersey plate throws looks of shock, scorn, and derision, even if it belongs to a Montclair family with 2.5 kids rather than a butcher shop in Paterson.

When the blood of slaughtered pigs still stained the streets of the Meatpacking District, the High Line park-in-the-sky was once just a dream of some urban eccentrics who liked nothing more than risking tetanus while strolling in the mangy weeds that had sprung up atop the abandoned railroad trestle that everyone thought was — it was the fashion to describe such places — a blight, a pox, a black cancer preventing the realization of the neighborhood’s bright, less bovine future.

Today, a line one hundred people deep winds its way under the railways southernmost supports, which carry the new park above to its blunt slice-off point, teetering slightly over Gansevoort Street. The whole affair — the carnival atmosphere, the families, the concessionaires (albeit servers of hangover huevos rather than cotton candy), even the fact that the High Line’s hip landscape designers have opted to retain (well, replicate) the old railway tracks atop the trestle (and the weeds, too, although they’ve acquired, like hipster hair, an air of carefully-planned carelessness) — all of this feels like the entrance to some spectacular theme park ride, and I half expect to see a sign forbidding anyone who isn’t this tall to ride (the extensive list of rules and regulations turns out to be much less interesting).

New Jersey looms ominously in the background

Meatpacking mopeds from on High

14th Street cuts a handsome cobblestone swath through these parts

Up, up, but not too far — the High Line has become renown for its views, neither too high nor too low — a unique vantage point on street life, exult the critics. The Meatpacking District shrinks to toyland, its moped mania and fedora frenzy appears in enough detail to be scrutinized, and from enough distance to appear comically lemminglike. Yes, this is one of many things about the park to like.

Among the others are: the way, from certain angles, the Hudson disappears, and the towers of Jersey City look as if they’re floating in the background of some vast, elevated savannah; the fact that the park conservancy declined developers’ bribes to allow access directly from their neighboring new towers to the park — and forced them to build public toilets, instead; and the way that, midway in, the tourists seem to have settled down, to have started using the High Line as an actual park, sprawled on wide benches where they’ve spread out the Sunday Times to aid in the digestion of brunch. Meanwhile, some gauchely dressed suburbanites stop and admire some barbed wire laced across the roof of a warehouse, brought level with the Line, as if it were as worthy of their attention as some head-scratching early Cubist piece at MOMA.

Welcome to the Lido Deck

Barbed wire is so banal these days

But look again. Those benches splashed with sunbathers are designed like the deck chairs of a cruise ship, and the developers seem to be getting on quite well without their exclusive access. Which ought to be fine — let them try and achieve some success, in the midst of such hard times — but they seem insistent on creating, amid the old warehouses of West Chelsea, some kind of Potemkin Rotterdam that only increases one’s suspicions that Manhattan is Epcot, and the High Line is its latest, greatest attraction.

Among the views the line has opened up are some suddenly and spectacularly lucrative ad spaces. And would it be surprising to hear that, by chance, the High Line terminates, at the northern end, directly in the heart of the city’s most high powered gallery district? The crowds, the de facto sponsorship, and architecture of Tomorrowland all combine to make one feel as if one has tripped into some wild, wet dream of late capitalism, one final orgy of Felliniesque decadence to gorge on in the midst of the Fall. In other words, it’s a park in denial of its ultimate functions: distraction, consumption, denial.

The future is here, whenever this meets its sales targets

A familiar New York landmark: advertising

New Rotterdam rises

But the High Line is more than a novelty gimmick useful for hawking art and apartments, or even, for that matter, a safety valve in the form of a shiny bauble meant to reaffirm an increasingly skeptical public’s faith in material progress. The forced linearity, even on this narrowest strip of parkland, is telling enough. A little more than midway through the High Line from Gansevoort Street (because, like a roller coaster, the High Line can only be entered from one point) is a telling apotheosis — the designers have suspended an amphitheatre above 10th Avenue.

From within, to sit and watch cabs and cars shoot out from underneath, barreling toward the spires of Midtown, feels like the Greatest Show on Earth. Seen from beyond, though, the crowds in the amphitheatre look trapped in contrast to the empty the streets below. This literal theatre of the absurd could not demonstrate more clearly how much the High Line is preoccupied with spectacle and show, and, ultimately, with the power performance has over audiences everywhere — control.

This entry was written by Christopher Szabla , posted on Monday June 22 2009at 11:06 pm , filed under Heritage and Preservation, Public Space, United States and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

2 Responses to “High Times”

  • Only one entrance? Really? That alone seems to lend credence to what you’re saying.

    How would you compare it to the Viaduc des Arts in Paris?

  • There are multiple access points (theoretically), but the “Friends of the High Line” have posted guards to control them (they wear black t-shirts, like bouncers). When the park “reaches capacity,” they will “ask” you to only enter from the Gansevoort side (where the NYPD have thoughtfully set up barriers to corral the inevitable lines).

    Presumably there will be at least one other main entrance when the park is extended to its full length, up to near 30th St.

    As for the Viaduc des Arts – the High Line is much wider – and wide open to the city. When I walked the Viaduc, I felt like there was a strange amount of effort made to cancel out the surrounding neighborhoods with tall shrubs.

    And despite the fact that the Viaduc shelters select stores in its arches (and the High Line is ostensibly closed to commerce), most of the blocks around the entrance and exits to the High Line are teeming with shops, cafes, and galleries (or slated to be). The streets around the Viaduc, meanwhile, are dead quiet, despite its proximity to the busy Place de la Bastille.

    I ought to say, though, that the mature Viaduc conveyed an elegance that the High Line lacks; all the effort that went into its design (and the design of its neighbors) has come off a bit gimmicky.