Of the three substantial challenges to the instantaneous success of the High Line when it opens in June, only one may be insurmountable: our preconceived fantasies.
Ever since those moody photographs by Joel Sternfeld transformed the abandoned bramble and broken-glass-strewn rail into a cause célèbre by showing it off as some kind of windswept heath with warehouse cliffs out of Wuthering Heights, the earth-bound reality was destined to be a hard sell.
Nor will it matter how ingeniously the team of Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Field Operations have designed its one-foot concrete paver “fingers” to spread apart, allowing the Moor Grass and Shenandoah Switchgrass to grow up between them to mimic the appearance of overgrown terrain. Blogger cynics have already started to carp about the unprecedented-for-public-parks chaise lounges (a few using the old rails as sliders so they can be bunched together), calling them future bedsteads for the homeless and drug-users.
We can expect more of the same, because when the fantasy memories of unfettered nature and the tale about the one wild pear tree that took root in toxic soil hit the pavement, there’s going to be a backlash from all those too impatient to accept the fact that even wild plants take their own good time to mature. But as Ric Scofidio said on a recent walk along the stretch from Gansevoort to 20th Street now nearing completion, that’s a challenge that will “solve itself over time.”
Then there’s the hot-potato topic of free access. The designers of the High Line envisioned it as a slow park for a fast crowd, with entry points every two to three blocks. But a fear has lingered that enthusiasts will ascend the rail like the mob of fishwives descending on Versailles and trample its fragile ecology before it can take root.
The fact is that there is no real precedent for the urban meandering offered by the High Line. In Italy, the evening stroll, or passagiato, is more of a mass milling funneling past outdoor cafes and fueled by coffee and Campari. America’s rails to trails have streams, roller-bladers, and off-leash dogs—all verboten on the High Line. The closest match is the Promenade Plantée in Paris, although as Scofidio pointed out, it’s more commonly used as a neighborhood shortcut than a destination unto itself.
Great care has gone into heightening the new kind of experience on offer up on the High Line—the chaise lounges are positioned just where the sun always shines; the south end is wider and more hard-scaped to allow for social congregation—and Parks anticipates adding food concessions there—while the upper reaches where the surrounds are more residential narrow and soften with an actual lawn going in at 23rd Street. One of the more adventuresome features is the bleacher dropped down like a trap door—a favorite DS+R trope—right over 10th Avenue traffic. “You’ll see the city in a whole new way,” said Scofidio, “not like mice scurrying around the edges of buildings. You never get into the space of the city like this.”
As sure as the initial reaction to the High Line is bound to be disappointment, so will it grow and flourish as people become accustomed to using it. One thing more is abundantly clear: The High Line has been perfectly timed to open just when we need it most, to rediscover the civil pleasures of walking and talking with each other.