Sunday, August 30, 2009


My first article about the Highline was written in May from a desk in Connecticut -an abstract vision of what it could mean. I think most of what I stated then stands true, but being on the Highline this week has muddied those thoughts with physicality and experience.


Upon ascending at Ganesvoort St, my first inclination was to survey the plants. Honestly, I barely took my eyes off them, or at least that is my memory of the experience. For any gardener, maybe, it's difficult for the Highline to be anything but about the plants. I still think, in this day, that it takes a lot of confidence to put this kind of planting together. Salute to Mr. Oudolf.

These copper-toned Coneflowers grew on me.

Billowing masses of Aster just before bloom, nicely placed amongst a prominent section of rail.

While Birches were common, I was surprised to find this pine hiding behind them.

For those of us with small gardens, it's pure luxury to indulge in masses of grasses.

Simple beauty.

Look at that, Leadplant.

Polyganum or Persicaria, depending on which side of the bed you woke today.

This plant's common sibling, Smartweed, returns every year to my garden to fill in the blanks.

Ahh, the Pickerelweed I spotted in Maine last week, but still a bit different.

I was glad to see one Sassafras. I think it will be happy to get some afternoon shade.

Crazy Aster, purple then yellow.

Expected to see Quaking Oat Grass. Not expected to see it used in moderation.

I did think there would be more varieties of milkweed. I saw some Orange Butterfly Weed, Asclepias tuberosa. I picked up one of these three weeks ago at Gowanus Nursery in Red Hook.

I really like Cutleaf Sumac, Rhus laciniata.

In fact, there was lots of Sumac. Its nature its to form dense mats. I wonder how this will play out here. Are there barriers underneath?

I almost bought this plant when I was looking for Milkweed. I hesitated. Its a type of Aster.

I love the rich color of this Sedum.

A patch of Heuchera tolerating the dry shade behind the hotel.

Nearby, this leg, complete with banded ankle.

I saw two gardeners on my visit. One was hand picking every fallen leaf on the gravel. The look of the gravel cover is both good and appropriate for the Highline, but the organic debris will spoil its appearance in a few years unless it is meticulously cleaned. How long can they keep this up?

Another gardener was dead-heading some Knautia. I stopped to ask her if she was responsible for dead-heading the whole line. She said no, that there were 8 gardeners and all the plants don't get dead-headed anyway, the grass for instance. I suppose I wasn't wearing my gardener shirt. I then asked her if they will let weeds fill in the blanks. She said in some areas yes, for instance Queen Anne's lace and Ailanthus because they grew here before. I was amazed at the Ailanthus, but to each their own.


The whole of the Highline is extremely well put together, having the qualities of a professionally made private garden. Its designers, James Corner Field Operations with architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro and plant designer Piet Oudolf are all at the top of their field.

Never before have I seen such a clever device for keeping pedestrians on path. Sure the willful can step into the plantings, but this uneven surface naturally inclines people to move towards the center. The threat of tripping unglamourously and skinning ones knees while chatting up your friends keeps your feet and eyes coordinated with the path's edge. No idle threat, it actually works, and you will trip if you do not pay attention.

I really like concrete, so I really like the pavers and their raised edges.

Straight runs did not create the opportunity for uneven edges, forcing them to resort to traditional barriers.

There is a new intimacy with small buildings that feels more meaningful than with the large.

A large quantity of people just watching cars zoom to the vanishing point of a framed picture window. Is it like watching a campfire? Are they moved into deep thought by the repetition and linear motion. This space is like an eddy in a river, catching and holding people.

I know this hotel has won prizes, and context is important, but I don't think it would have much going for it were it not for the Highline. Everything about its form that is interesting is built in relationship to the Highline.

An interesting section of rail.

In my prior article about the Highline I suggested the possible feeling of trespass as we walk on the rail line, but this did not come to pass. While the rail was present, it was typically pushed to the side for obvious reasons. In fact, I lost the sense that I was on a train trestle shortly after emerging on deck. The new gray-green timbers under the old steel rail presented a sense of artifice, not adaptive re-use. I wished they had used the old creosote timbers (yes, they smell) or at least stained the new treated timbers a dark color to emulate the old tracks. But in the final analysis, this project is not about history and not so much about elevated train trestles.

Project Runway

At the northern terminus, pedestrian traffic flows. There is only one or two benches to capture passers-by. The northeastern view is a broad expanse looking to 23rd Street's massive London Terrace. The advertising seems to sit in the landscape. The scale of the distant buildings suggest that they sit on the same ground plane as you do.

The foreground is activated by pedestrians similar, oddly, in scale to the advertisement.

Some stop to photograph the Empire State Building (and the advertising).

Point out other architectural points of interest (this is NY after all).

Primarily it is a parade ground, NYC's most fashionable promenade. Most come in groups or couples, taking in the sights, chatting it up. Further down they are snagged by benches, chairs or the eddy where they hang out, talk, drink, and eat. Currently dogs are not allowed, and I saw one couple's wee poodle chased off the line by park security. Yet its only a matter of time for these beasts -even the signage says, "at this time dogs are not allowed." It was a coup to even get this rule put in place. Everyone knows that fashionable parading begs for a cutesy canine. I think, eventually, this will override other concerns.

The kid in all of us, maybe, wants to do this -find the hidden rail and balance beam it.

These tow-headed children put themselves in a position to discover something. I envied that freedom, but stayed pathside. I found few people actually engaging the plants. Most were looking outward or forward. Maybe its the motion of the crowd, the linear path keeps you on the move. Would it have mattered if the planting was rose bushes and lavender to the average Highline visitor? As a plant person, I was more involved with them than the space beyond. Although I was interested in how the two-sided planting softens the experience of the promenade and the world beyond.

There was a moment when I stopped to speak to the gardener dead-heading the Knautia. In all about 1 minute, people started gathering around her and I. Not to say anything or do anything, but as if suddenly they were given some silent permission to discover. Fascinating.


  1. Thanks for spotting that pine...I missed it! Clever.

    I liked the hearted-out faces.

  2. I would heartly call them hearts!

  3. Um...ok. The not-hearts, then...I thought you were just being nice cos you took their faces off.

    Picking up all the leaves sounds insane. Talk about well manicured.

  4. I don't think we are supposed to be able to see the faces of people we didn't get permissions for. Or at least I think that to be true, its been a while since hearing of those things. So Off with their faces!

    People can be sensitive to such things. Funny thought: People used to complain that their soul was being stolen when photographed, now people complain that their rights are being taken away.

    Anysowhat, circle blob-faces. Yes, and the gardener was either completely zen or just mad- he was in the same spot for some time with a rubber basket picking leaves. Come to think of it, the Knautia deadheader was deadheading the same plant coming and going!

  5. Thank you for the wonderful tour!

    I'm no lawyer, but I believe it is legal to publicly show photos of people who are photographed in public. It might be different if you were using the photo in an advertisement or if you were selling the photo.

  6. Yeah, Michelle, the commercial application. Even though I don't make any money with this...Its sort of quasi-commercial. Plus I thought, what if they're googling around and just end up here and see themselves- a little wierd. So the blobs was just a way of saying, "you know, I care at least that much";)


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