Walking on Air
The New York Times 8/26/2011
By JEFF GORDINIER
EVER since various dreamers on the West Side of Manhattan began to envision it, the High Line has signified New York’s future: a glimpse of where the metropolis might go if people dreamed, and schemed, hard enough.
But few of those forward-thinkers could have predicted what’s obvious now to anyone who goes for a stroll along the full length of this model of urban renewal on a weekday summer evening: The High Line is also nudging New York back into the past.
The scene along the elevated and meticulously landscaped walkway that stretches from Gansevoort Street to West 30th Street can feel like some Gotham Festival of the Lost Arts. As the sun slides down beyond the Hudson River and gives Barry Diller’s curved white colossus a weirdly holy gleam, you’re bound to encounter the lost art of the promenade, unhurried conversation, perhaps even someone using paper and pen to scribble free verse in a journal.
Grace Wright, a Williams College student who has spent the summer interning at Marvel Comics, could be found doing just that on a breezy Thursday evening in August. “This is a nice place to just sit and think,” she said. She lounged on a bench, sketching observations in a notebook. “It’s kind of soothing. Have you seen the theater seating just to watch the traffic below?”
Ms. Wright grew up in Tennessee and said that she found something comforting, up on the High Line, in being surrounded by so much foliage. “It reminds me of home because of all the tall grass,” she said.
Were it not for the profusion of flip-flops, ear buds and artisanal ice pops, a walker in the city might wonder whether he had passed through a kind of time portal into, say, the 1880s.
“It’s like a 19th-century bucolic stroll,” said André Balazs, the entrepreneur and High Line pioneer whose Standard Hotel stands astride the lower end of the serpentine urban boardwalk like a superhero’s lair. “You can almost imagine people with parasols.”
There might be a picnic in progress, arranged like a scene from a Gilded Age novel.
“People actually do walk and converse,” said Tom Colicchio, the chef, whose apartment on Horatio Street looks right out on the High Line and who helped put together the low-key cluster of food trucks and beer taps at the Lot, by the intersection of 30th Street and 10th Avenue. “It brings you back. I don’t know if it goes back to Edith Wharton, but at least to a time before cellphones.”
That portal, though, can quickly slam shut.
Were he to amble down a staircase from the High Line to the meatpacking district, the same walker might be inclined to think that he’d accidentally plunged naked into the “Hot Tub Time Machine.”
What you find on the ground, especially at night, is not a hushed echo of 1880s New York but a garish blast of the 1980s. The pulse of the nightclubs and the pose of the designer boutiques seem to carry such a genetic imprint of the Nancy Reagan era that you half expect Tad Allagash of “Bright Lights, Big City” to come stumbling out of a black door, wiping white powder off the collar of his blazer, knocking over a few yards of velvet rope and shouting at the doormen.
“It’s always been a nocturnal, bustling place,” Mr. Balazs said. “You used to pack the meat, now you pack the clubs. Interestingly enough, the hours of operation are not that dissimilar. And then it has this bucolic street, now, running down the middle of it, which couldn’t be more New York or more charming.”
There are mornings when Scott Conant, the chef at Scarpetta, likes to amble from his apartment on 30th Street down to his restaurant on West 14th Street, tapping his BlackBerry. And there are Saturday evenings when, after a busy night at the restaurant, he has been known to grab a few bottles of wine with comrades and sit on a patio watching the roaring, tottering tides of meatpacking partiers until 1 or 2 a.m.
“It’s like a carnival without the monkeys and the balloons,” he said. “Neither one is good or bad. I’m not in the business of judging people. They’re just different. That’s what city living is.”
It’s all New York, of course, both the manic and the muted; the city thrives on opposition.
In the case of the High Line, though, what’s striking is the immediate and intimate way in which two worlds clash, and the radically different ways in which upper and lower High Liners interpret the ethos of urban living.
In fact, that sense of bifurcated sensibilities was present long before anyone imagined that a blighted and abandoned stretch of train tracks might be ripe for transformation.
Dan Wood, who with his wife and partner, Amale Andraos, runs the Work Architecture Company, which conceived Diane Von Furstenberg’s honeycomb-topped studio in the meatpacking district, remembers getting an opportunity to climb onto those tracks just as plans for the revitalization project were beginning to build momentum.
“Things got quieter,” he recalled of that experience. “The streets kind of disappeared, even though they were right there below you. The thing is, the High Line is not very high. It’s like 15 feet high, so it’s not going to totally remove you from the city, and yet it did even back then.”
Re-entry, following a few moments in that aerial refuge, could jangle the nerves. “It was always a little bit of a shock to come down off of it,” Mr. Wood said. “Because you had been in this other world.”
Over the last decade or so, the jangling world below, in the streets of the meatpacking district, has evolved into something that feels like a nightly reality-show reunion tour that you’re not sure you want to subject your soul to.
It’s no oasis of calm. It’s a blustering, woof-woofing, high-fiving, tanned, high-heels-on-cobblestones circus where Vin Diesel and Paris Hilton still seem to retain a stubborn sartorial influence.
“We’re in the meatpacking,” one club-hopper in a black dress bluntly instructed her khaki-clad male companion the other night. “You gotta be cool.”
It’s a point that seems open to debate.
“The crowd isn’t cool,” said Nick Quested, the owner of Goldcrest Films, which has an office in the neighborhood. “Bottle service killed the New York club scene, and now it’s just an ostentatious display of wealth. I preferred it when it was just Mars, the ultimate downtown hip-hop club, and Florent.”
Were you tempted to stretch the metaphor of the portal a bit further, you might draw a comparison to the two communities of the future that separately coexist in “The Time Machine,” the novel by H. G. Wells that was published in 1895. Above ground frolic the delicate and peaceful creatures known as Eloi; in the subterranean hollows are the industrious, aggressive and light-sensitive Morlocks. (In the novel, the Morlocks eat the Eloi. It hasn’t yet come to that on the High Line.)
Removed from the rapid-fire, high-pitched energy that surrounds a packed magnet like, say, the Biergarten at the Standard, the pace on the pedestrian walkway itself, just a few steps away, can feel like a holistic expansion of the “slow food” movement: slow walking, slow talking, slow living.
Stand on the walkway near 20th Street and look east. There’s a Corona billboard whose slogan — “Unplugged. Find your beach.” — seems to capture the mood (and sound and scent) when the High Line’s dune-grassy vegetation is audibly swishing back and forth. Instead of lying back and staring at the water, visitors here sit in a viewing station above 10th Avenue and watch the cars float by, Ms. Wright said.
The tableau there is captured in exquisite detail by JaegerSloan, a downtown studio that has assembled design, video and photography projects for clients like projects for clients like the New York City Ballet, Samsung and the Ailey School. Approached by the architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro with the assignment of making a three-minute movie that captures a sense of walking along the High Line, the studio’s partners, Doug Jaeger and Kristin Sloan, were stumped at first.
You can’t walk the entire stretch of the High Line in three minutes. And you can’t plow through the crowds with a video camera in your hand. The result would be blurry and jumbled.
Their solution was clever, albeit rudimentary: they mounted a digital camera to a wheelchair. “It looked like the robot from ‘Short Circuit,’ ” Ms. Sloan said. They pushed their rolling eye along the High Line very patiently, clicking a slow, long-exposure shutter to capture the blur of people in motion.
“The entire journey from one end to the other took us eight hours,” Mr. Jaeger said.
They wound up making three wheelchair runs. They saw runners at dawn, children on a scavenger hunt in the morning, Google employees enjoying an alfresco lunch. “It was a gym,” Mr. Jaeger said. “Then it became a school. At nighttime it became a big dating scene, every bench had a couple on it about to make out.”
It’s that thriving sense of community that suggests, to Mr. Balazs, that the very words High Line will eventually become international shorthand for a certain mode of urban reinvention. “It’s going to become so iconic that you’ll get a pedestrian walkway in Boston or Berlin or Bangalore, and people will say that’s the High Line of that city,” he predicted.
But will each of these heavenly idylls come with a seething cauldron down below? And if not, will they be quite so appreciated?
“Yes, there’s a great juxtaposition between the types of people that hang out in meatpacking on, let’s say, a Friday night and the kinds of folks who will walk the High Line on a Monday morning, but it’s nice that that juxtaposition exists,” said Soraya Darabi, a founder of Foodspotting, the social networking site, and a frequent High Line perambulator. “That’s New York.” If you’ve got a problem with cross-cultural friction, she said, “then move back to the Midwest.”