For High Line Visitors, Park Is a Railway Out of Manhattan
New York Times 7/22/2009
By Diane Cardwell
The High Line is still under construction, with orange-vested workers busily adding last-minute touches. Yet the park, perched on an old elevated railway on the West Side of Manhattan, already seems like a permanent fixture, almost a small town in the air.
It has its own mobile skyline in the steady stream of heads (or, in the rain, umbrellas) bobbing above the trestle. It has its own economy, including the $15 High Line Picnic Baskets for sale at Friedman’s Lunch at the Chelsea Market (sandwich, cole slaw, pickle, chips, cookie, beverage). It has its own art scene, drawing students from Parsons sketching panoramas, and photographers armed with devices from cellphones to Leicas. It has its own neighborhoods and hot spots, shifting in feel throughout the day.
It even inspires crusty New Yorkers to behave as if they were strolling down Main Street in a small town rather than striding the walkway of a hyper-urban park — routinely smiling and nodding, even striking up conversations with strangers.
“Here people tend to be more friendly,” Kathy Roberson, who is retired but does volunteer work with the poor, said on Saturday. “Those same people, you might see them someplace else and, you know,” she broke off, raising her eyebrows, “they’re kind of stressed.”
A little more than a month since its first stretch opened, the High Line is a hit, and not just with tourists but with New Yorkers who are openly relishing a place where they can reflect and relax enough to get a new perspective on Manhattan.
Despite the complaints about noise, gentrification and tour buses spewing forth their cargo, many locals have fallen so hard and fast for the park that they are acting as impromptu tour guides, eager to show off their new love interest.
“It just gives you a whole new appreciation of Chelsea,” Amy Goodman, co-host of the radio and television news program “Democracy Now!,” was saying with an enthusiastic sweep of her arm to her companions early on a Friday. “It’s such an incredible celebration of urban architecture.”
Later, the evening found one of her group, Brenda Murad, leading a tour of her own for a friend from Mexico City.
Since its southernmost section — from 20th Street near 10th Avenue to the corner of Gansevoort and Washington Streets — opened to the public on June 9, the park has attracted more than 300,000 visitors, said Patrick Cullina, vice president of horticulture and park operations for the High Line. Plans call for the park to reach as far north as 34th Street.
Weekdays it draws from 3,000 to 15,000 through its entrances at 20th, 18th, 16th, 14th and Gansevoort Streets. Weekends are busier, with roughly 18,000 to 20,000 visitors a day; but the park’s legal capacity is 1,700, so officials have often resorted to “special entry” for an hour or two, limiting entry to Gansevoort Street and, for those needing an elevator, 16th Street.
On Saturday around noon, the park was lively, but there was still plenty of room. Ms. Roberson had brought her mother, Josephine, and her neighbor Louis Smart, a retired opera singer and teacher, from their apartments on West 43rd Street, wanting to show them something a little different.
They were sitting on the topmost row at the Sunken Overlook, the centerpiece of 10th Avenue Square, which hovers over 16th and 17th Streets. In daylight the space functions like a central plaza, with trees scattered around benches, open areas and rows of amphitheater-style seating that offer a windowed view of cars and trucks rushing below on 10th Avenue.
Mealtimes tend to be most crowded, when people picnic, chat or just stare blankly at the traffic underfoot, often with children running serpentines through the seats. At night, the overlook turns into a Warholian conceptual installation, with its art-house vibe and screenlike windows.
But on Saturday, it was a stop on Amy Chin’s “urban birthday safari,” a daylong tour of attractions far above the ground, she said, inspired by the High Line. Ms. Chin, a consultant to nonprofit arts groups, was celebrating her 47th birthday with friends and family over lunch and a cake frosted in thick chocolate butter cream and poppy-red and saffron-orange flowers (“Van Gogh colors,” as her sister, Lily, put it).
Back at the top of the overlook, Mr. Smart was transfixed by the cake.
“Now, I’ve got to see that,” he said.
“You’ve seen a cake before,” Kathy Roberson said. “Not like that!” Mr. Smart countered, descending.
After his return a few minutes later, Amy Chin approached, offering to share the confection. Josephine Roberson accepted. The High Line had not yet seemed to impress her much, but the cake did.
“She’s smiling now,” Kathy Roberson said, laughing.
There are other gathering places, like the passage beneath the Standard Hotel near Little West 12th Street, where the arching structure has created a breezeway with perpetual shade and cooling winds. The Standard is itself a draw, attracting people hoping for a glimpse of the racy displays in the huge plate-glass room windows of the hotel, which seeks out exhibitionist guests by promoting itself as a sleek sex palace. (“And now, the floor-to-ceiling glass windows overlooking the High Line at the Standard New York offer direct views to your most intimate moments,” read a notice on its blog).
There is plenty to see below the hotel, especially near 13th Street. On Friday around 7 p.m., a shifting cluster was leaning over the railing there, snapping pictures of the creative types sipping champagne at an open-air lounge, and of Marni Halasa, a figure skating instructor and “parade junkie” who was posing, arms held high — for a National Enquirer photo shoot, she said.
She was wearing what she called her mermaid outfit: long, form-fitting aquamarine sequined skirt slit nearly to the waist, halter top, shimmering cape held like angel wings, Rollerblades.
But there is no spot more coveted than the sundeck facing the Hudson River between 14th and 15th Streets, where the row of dark brown ipe wood lounge chairs brings bikini-clad sunbathers, picnicking families and affectionate couples throughout the day and evening. If it were the late 1980s, this would be Nell’s, albeit without the cocaine and cocktails: roving park security officers are vigilant about drinking, which is prohibited.
The visibility of the staff — maintenance workers, gardeners, volunteers wearing “Ask Me About The High Line” buttons — is important, Mr. Cullina said, in promoting the sense that the park is well maintained.
So on Sunday night, before the park’s 10 p.m. shutdown and 7 a.m. reopening, a maintenance worker was wheeling a garbage can along the sundeck.
“I’m looking for trash donation,” he called out, as if hawking hot dogs at a ball field. “Can I get a trash donation, y’all?”
A few along the way obliged. Meng Li, a bond analyst with a fondness for magic tricks, playfully fanned out a deck of cards. The pinks in the sky deepened toward purple, the red neon W of the hotel across the Hudson grew brighter, and the strains of Hector del Curto’s Eternal Tango Orchestra on Pier 54 drifted overhead.
One of Mr. Li’s companions, Nikoleta Kasa, took it all in, saying, “I’m lucky to live here.”