Tag Archives: High Line

The Bottom Line

We are slogging through the underbrush, the vines and weeds grabbing at our legs, sharp-edged bush branches snapping at our faces – think jungle movies you’ve seen, minus the machetes. The ground is crunchy in spots, spongy in others, and in places a swampy stretch meanders alongside us. The sky is vivid blue, and clear, made more so by the dark, penned-in area we find ourselves in. And it is quiet. In a forest, this quiet would not be so unusual – but we are, despite the wild, untouched nature all around us, right in the middle of a city. Ninety-nine percent of Philadelphians don’t know that where we are – under their feet, beneath their cars, almost entirely out of sight and lost in the veldt – even exists; and of the one-percent who do, 99.5 percent of them have never been where we are now walking: a canyon carved into the metropolis, nature taking back what the city-builders and titans of industry bulldozed away.

In New York City more than a decade ago, some visionaries noticed abandoned, elevated train tracks stretching north-south near the Hudson River – and, finding their way up to that level, saw that, left to the elements, the tracks and bridge structure were now a thriving meadow of native plants, shrubs and flowers. Today, after years of work and millions of dollars, the High Line has become a ribbon of accomplishment, a tourist magnet, an exotic and expanded pathway to and from work and play, and a blueprint for others who, in their home towns, have a rail relic with the potential for renewed greatness.

In Philadelphia, there are two. One is called the Reading Viaduct, a mile-long bridge of north-south track that once carried passengers to and from the Reading Railroad Company’s grand Center City terminal. There is a group trying to emulate the High Line there; at the moment, neighborhood politics – it runs through Chinatown, and some are not happy with the development prospects – are putting, at a minimum, a speed bump into the planning.

A less publicized, and at the moment more monumental, project is what has brought us into this urban Amazon. It is called, by its small group of hopefuls, Viaduct Greene, and what the Reading Viaduct is to rehabilitating old passenger tracks, this has its eye on a nearly four-mile swath of left-behind land that once funneled freight trains into town. Most of it is below street level, defined and contained by soaring old stone walls topped by delicate iron railings; the key proponents of the dream – Paul vanMeter and Liz Maillie – hope to take this “inconspicuous, intimate submersive space of mystery, wild excitements,” in their website’s words, and turn it into a nature path connecting the burgeoning Loft Area just north of downtown to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway’s cultural zone, and especially to the new Barnes Foundation building. The two envision numerous access and egress points along the way, leading to, perhaps, a boardwalk or grated walkway that would allow the walker or bicyclist to travel among the untouched greenery without disturbing it (or kicking up clouds of whatever has permeated the ground-surface over the years). The two also envision money from various deep pockets coming forward to make this a reality.

And now we are with vanMeter, as he leads us through this eerie and wondrous conduit, occasionally stopping us at a spot to show us, on his iPad, where exactly we are in relation to the “real world” above us, and what it all looked like back when where we are standing would have put us in danger of being hit by a locomotive. We push on, from the eastern end, emerging from the darkness of a tunnel underneath what is a parking garage into the improbable lushness of this ad hoc city wilderness. We are in another place from what we could even imagine experiencing – except when, from time to too-frequent time, we are yanked back into the reality of our location by piles of plastic bottles and aluminum cans, some tossed with uncaring abandon from cars passing along the overpasses above our heads, and some from the homeless (one who accosts us with the belligerence of a property owner who has caught poachers in his field) who have found this to be an area far more amenable (and, perhaps, safer) than steaming sidewalk grates and stairwells.

We plod on, like the sailors and film crew looking for the beast on Kong Island. We look up, but, in a bit of disconnect, it’s not mountains we see but office and condominium buildings, and the Community College of Philadelphia campus. And always, even as the sun hits us, and the leaves and branches caress us and whack at us, we are constantly aware of the monumental walls of giant cut-block stone, gray and still sooty after all these years, and not going anywhere. We are, in a way, cowed by these giants (in movie serials of the past, they would begin to move towards each other with an ominous rumble, threatening to squeeze us to bloody pulps at the episode’s cliffhanging ending), but in a way elevated by them – they have an emotional impact not so different from the great walls of cathedrals, or of the Pyramids: they seem prehistoric, the work of early humans in thrall to some ancient gods, and that once a year the sun aligns with the tunnel in some religious denotation of the Heavens’ power over us. Of course, the “early humans” in this scenario were underpaid immigrant laborers, the “ancient gods” were robber barons and railroad capitalists, and the streaming “sun” was the gravy train of good old American commerce. But, these days, that sort of financial strutting confidence does seem prehistoric. And we’ll take our resonant monumentality where we can find it.

We emerge, finally, after a six-block walk that takes well over an hour, into a parking lot and then up to the surface, where pedestrians and drivers tootle along, unaware of the amazing bit of natural placeness below their feet, just over the bridge railing, a place they note, if they note it at all, with minimal curiosity. Another amazing, endangered  Philadelphia treasure, that deserves the hard work and good intentions that vanMeter and Maillie are applying to it. But, whether they win or lose, whatever happens with their Viaduct Greene project, it is somehow comforting to know that it represents what will happen when all of us silly anthro-creatures bite the dust and nature has the last laugh, rolls up its sleeve and gets to work.

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A (tour de) Force of Nature

There are, around the country, many public or private lands that have been turned into recreational sites: railway beds converted into walking/biking trails; riparian edges, formerly industrialized, now used as public access to scenic waterways; other brownfields repurposed as parks; canal towpaths dressed up for strolling along 19th-century economic history. This change of direction in land use is an asset for those who live in proximity to any one of these reclaimed sites. I say, with an embarrassment of riches, that I live within walking distance of all the above, plus one other. An extraordinary other.

The long-abandoned Upper Roxborough Reservoir is a dual reclamation – first, as a manmade structure reclaimed by nature; currently, as a naturalized area embraced by people wanting it to be a protected ecosystem – very much like the recently born-again High Line, in New York City. And it is special in another way, too. There the reservoir sits in its present state – smack dab in the middle of housing developments looking to expand, but also adjacent to a long-preserved site: The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education – straddling the thin green line between “progress” and preservation, economic speculation and natural sustainability. Here’s hoping nature prevails.

Coming upon it, in some sense, is like finding the ruins of an ancient civilization and then, after climbing up to it, discovering within it a kind of Eden or, perhaps, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. It is most definitely a surprise – a revelation, even. And it is built at the highest point in Philadelphia, so its effect, and it is a powerful one, may be a result of oxygen deprivation. Inside, its structure has the appearance of a volcanic or meteor crater, a deep concave shape in a mound. Looking at it from the street, because it is built up from the ground, it resembles a miniature green planet emerging full-blown from our own, an island rising from land.

When you ascend its ramps or stairs, on foot or bicycle, you find yourself atop a butte with a surrounding pathway similar in feel to abandoned railroad beds (once there were tracks during construction of the reservoir). The path is probably 1½ to 2 stories above street level, but the reservoir’s interior depth seen from the path is much greater. Its bottomless-appearing bottom is encased by a steep cliff face made of brick and patches of concrete, which slopes and tapers down creating a giant bowl, or, rather, two giant rectangular bowls, side-by-side, similar to a set of joined pet bowls (for dinosaur-sized pets – and it does feel like the sort of primeval place where dino-slurping might have occurred). In one bowl has formed a water feature, a fresh-water lake, with undulating grasses and reeds at the juncture of plant material and water, sculpted patterns created by the wind. It is such a lovely thing to behold, and when the water fowl are present it makes it even more magical and real, as they add audible squawking and wing-flapping in addition to some splashing and the gentle whoosh of water landings.

The second bowl, viewable after following the path a while, is the dry-food bowl side – a regenerated woodland which, after heavy rains, becomes a short-lived wetland and provides changing landscapes seasonally. There are a surprising variety of trees, deciduous and non-, which grow ravenously in among the brick-faced walls as well as at the bottom of the bowls and also around the reservoir’s outer edge, making it all the more hidden from the street. And together with the grasses, the resulting ecosystem presents a near-complete education in the various cycles of growth and succession in nature.

The oval path continues around the entire site, the reclaimed area’s 34 acres inaccessible but visible through a chain link fence that surrounds the bowls. The journey provides the walker or peddler a three-quarter mile circuit through an unusual, reaccessioned environment: a combination of quiet greenspace, sunken forest and crater lake, along with a few remaining concrete structures from its original 1892 functions. It was decommissioned in the early 1960s, so it has had a life of its own for more than half a century. And, too, it supports the livelihoods of various small mammals, large numbers of wetland bird species and the yearly migration of thousands of toads for mating season (this has generated quite an annual springtime event, with volunteers blocking off streets to cars so that the hordes of brown American toads and greenish Pickerel frogs can make it to their appointed rounds).

Not only is this unique site a layered jumble of natural and manmade, knitted together in a stunning repurposing with a life of its own, a history and a future (we hope), but it also has that unmistakable and inexplicable heady feeling of placeness – a kind of accidental placeness that has power derived from a mix of human-built and natural that was never meant to be in concert. Often it is the other way around: humans come in and add something to a natural environment and create an intentional placeness. But here, at the city’s geographical pinnacle, despite the site’s original engineered purpose, one feels so detached from civilization and so connected to nature. Yet, there is such an integration of the two that it becomes a single whole: nature and culture, inseparable. Arslocii.


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I Walk the Line

For some of us, there is nothing better than looking at the world from a bird’s-eye view, a perspective that hovers above the earth-boundedness that we are born to endure. The preferred height varies with personal taste, but I find that anywhere between ten and thirty feet in the air is a happy place – like being in a tree, only not at the top. There is a feeling of elation, of being removed from the action below but still involved in witnessing it. Maybe it just reflects a desire for distance from societal traditions or norms, staying out of and above it all. Maybe it is the god complex in us.

In terms of height and distance, there is no place that could use such a sense of separation more than New York City. Enter the High Line, a remarkable effort combining infrastructure preservation, green space and landscape architecture to create a public space for strolling, watching and relaxing without encountering a single automobile. The brainchild of two inspired residents of the west Chelsea neighborhood it transects, this abandoned elevated freight-rail structure built in the 1930s became overgrown with reassertive nature, and the instigators and other local residents attached themselves to it as much-needed and -desired park land, weeds and all. After forming a “Friends of” group in 1999, politicking, maneuvering and fundraising, their dream of a magnificent public park was realized about ten years later. The success of its presence has revitalized the neighborhood that the High Line weaves through; a jewel of an elevated greenway that any section of Manhattan would covet, its original length (10th to 20th Streets) is now, in fact, in the process of being extended all the way to 34th Street.

The magnificence of its structure is a given, since even 1930s institutional styling is considered and decorative in a riveted-steel aesthetic – something done well even just for delivering products and goods to the upper floor (2nd and 3rd story) loading docks of factory buildings and warehouses. One of the best things about the High Line is how it zigzags into, through and under buildings, causing a stitching together of the rail line with the local architecture and creating tunnels and interesting spaces in the pierced structures. One, in particular, feels like an old rail station with tinted glass panes all green and yellow and more than a story high on the building’s interior side: a screen between the train and its dock. Another remarkable thing is the number of unique views available to the casual stroller from this perch: the Hudson River, the streets below, the sky so close you might think you are in Montana, up-close building facades, views down onto rooftops exposing all their mechanicals, lovely penthouses above, funky makeshift roof decks, water towers, skylights – it’s all there … well, it’s New York. One of the best sensations, and one not caused by passing traffic, is breezes – breezes off the Hudson, something that is rarely felt in the canyons of the city.

The promenade is a textural place made up of a variety of hard surfaces (terrazzo planks, wood, steel grating, stainless steel, corten steel, glass, gravel, some of the old original rail tracks left in place, metal-wire chain link, perforated metal and sections of railings that resemble train tracks on the vertical) plus a mix of soft but hardy meadow plants and grasses that will grow in with the same wildness that the uninvited ones had done. In its newly finished state, the promenade is a little too perfectly designed, almost like an outdoor mall (but without the shops, thankfully, and they are working on a water feature) but the feeling is that it will grow together in a way that a mall never would, especially with the planks’ fingerlings that merge and intermingle with the planted areas.

The walkways move in and out, funneling and narrowing and then widening to form plazas. There are benches galore, and in some areas there are wide two-person chaises (a few move on rail tracks) that are probably always occupied. At one spot there is stadium seating that faces four large picture windows looking out over 10th Avenue in an inviting theater of the absurd showing you what it is you have left below. This is a boardwalk reconsidered and reconfigured and built with self-sustainability in mind. Its newness and destination-ness (and tourist-ness) is something that will eventually morph into a real part of daily living.

The multiple layers of place taking place here are challenging. There is the place of the structure itself, one that was intentionally built not to overpower the street but rather to cut through the center of the blocks themselves, including buildings – in hindsight, a miraculous and magical solution that works well to this day. And those cuts create places, underbelly places that you would expect to find in a city. In its repurposed design, new physical places are created, as well as the unique viewable places discovered at this happy elevation on a flat island in-filled with mostly monolithic structures. The idea of this project has a placeness, in creating an elevated park in a densely built urban site. It is its own world, new land found and reclaimed within an impossibly already staked-out territory – that in itself has a remarkable placeness. But the real placeness will occur when nature asserts itself, and the hard manmade surfaces aren’t the most significant or overpowering part of the equation – when a balance is reached and some wildness returns. Until then, it would be wonderful if the High Line continued for the entire length of the island. Or even on into other states. And maybe we should see it as a preview of what can be done with all the horrible interstates and their clover leafs when the oil shortage puts an end to the car madness.

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