Tag Archives: train tracks

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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Filed under Art & Architecture, Nature/Nurture

Leaving Tracks

Railroad tracks have always had a sense of place for me. Although they are merely conduits, arteries, circuitry used to move something along and through and away to the next destination, they are compelling objects in their own right, and especially so when you come upon them on foot – surprising discoveries in unexpected places. I must not be alone in this feeling that tracks lend a placeness to wherever they are, because so many people, even in places where the tracks have been removed, gravitate there to walk, ride their bicycles and feel good being outside. Asphalt possesses little of the  poetry of tracks, but the spatial construct, the feel of it, is extant and recognizable.

For a hundred years or more, railroad companies laid their tracks alongside waterways, following the natural connectors of land to create settlements, commerce and expansion. In fact, many rail lines had the best views along the riparian edges of rivers and coastlines, as well as some dizzying, breathtaking, winding switchback climbs up to seemingly impenetrable mountains, which they then penetrated and came out the other side. The rail paths’ existence alone is a marvel to ponder, along with the human power that built them, but one must also consider the isolation and  loneliness that surely accompanied the laying of track in places that only dreams – of manifest destiny, of wealth, of monumental achievement, of nature-taming – could imagine.

Sometimes, today, the rail tracks look like scars on the land, zipper scars, that reveal the invasive alteration of the earth’s skin: trees were felled; rock was cut; ground was leveled; cinders and gravel replaced rich humus; dead, prostrate, creosote-soaked wood replaced upright living wood; stakes were driven – man’s needs reigned supreme.

Over the years, since that initial scarring, nature has reasserted itself and, in the most wonderful of spots, it and the hand of man have achieved parity. There is a combined effect that happens between train and nature, forming a kind of tunnel or arbor out of the feral growth that occurs around the brutal tracks. It grows in a kind of carved-out topiary with generational memory of the last passing train – the plant life accommodating or dying, fashioning an elongated green arcade, a verdant chute with lovely dappled light. This half-human/half-nature creation is a horizontal rabbit hole, beckoning us Alices to enter it. Such is the effect of the encasing foliage structure above and around the tracks, which either go straight ahead for miles, fading into perspectival distance, or turn and disappear, suddenly, like animal tracks: both scenarios lend their own mystery. It is a teasing of the mind’s eye, a stimulation of the imagination as to where it goes and how far and where it leads, conceptual issues that add to the magic of the already magical enclosed space – all at once, and in one, a sense of destiny and placeness.

My great grandmother’s house sat on the floodplain between the river and the tracks, with not much ground separating the fixed from the moving. The tracks were an upper boundary, running atop a banked retaining wall along the property, a bizarre inside-out moat that had to be crossed via a gravel road for access to the world. There was an  interesting irony, one I didn’t grasp at the time, of being settled, stationary between two modes of transportation. I was drawn to the tracks, as if by a magnet, not only for their mysterious presence but also by a metaphor I didn’t yet understand: standing at a crossroads, looking both ways to where the tracks had been and where they were headed, disappearing into uncertainty.

All these thoughts arise when I look at railroad tracks: a combination of memory, imagined journey, markers, pointers, industrial achievement, conquest and the reassertion of nature’s mandate – resulting in a powerful sense of belonging.

One more thought, full of memory: For me, as a child visiting Coney Island in Cincinnati, there was a ride that generated this same sensation: the Kiddie Kars. Comprised of small-gauge tracks, and on them miniature hand-cranked railcars (think of a full-sized handcar or pump trolley, but designed for one – a tiny one), it was somebody’s idea of utilizing, for fun and profit, the dead space behind and under the big wooden roller coaster. It was a child-powered adventure around and beneath the big ride but through the same sort of back-alley thickets, wrong-side-of-the-tracks magical mystery tour that real trains traveled. And it was wonderful in conveying a sense of unexplored lands and self-sufficiency, freedom and even danger – the remote but ever-present possibility of something falling from the heights of the roller coaster – exactly the sort of things that kids love and that liability laws and parental overprotection have made extinct these days. Back then, it was all about kids relying on their little arms to propel them out of the overgrowth and the otherness at civilization’s edge, the abandoned-seeming and forgotten rear of the park, and, at their own pace, returning to their waiting parents. It was always the most fun when there was no one behind you to make you go faster than you wished to go. With this ride, being last in line was best.

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Filed under Musings, Nature/Nurture