Side Order: High on the High Line, phase II

June 24, 2011

It was hard to believe that I was strolling through Manhattan. Surrounded by magnolias and American hollies, I could detect nary a whisper of the honking taxis that constitute New York’s familiar soundtrack.

That’s because I was 30 feet aboveground, on the newly opened second section of the High Line, New York’s park in the sky connecting the Meatpacking District, West Chelsea and Midtown West. Running between West 20th and 30th streets, the new section doubles the length of the park, a former railway line that has drawn more than 4 million visitors since its June 2009 opening. (The first section begins at Gansevoort Street.)

Walking the entire length of the extension, I felt as if I were following the yellow brick road. The narrow corridor is lined on either side with lush greenery and offers small surprises along the way. My favorite: talking water fountains.

That feature is actually a work of art by multimedia artist Julianne Swartz called “Digital Empathy.” It’s a sound installation at fountains, elevators and other spaces along the Line that talks to you as you stroll past, telling you to “relax,” among other things.

There’s plenty of other art along the way. Between 20th and 21st streets, New York artist Sarah Sze’s “Still Life With Landscape (Model for a Habitat)” is a collection of water boxes for birds, butterflies and other insects. It’s actually meant to be a habitat. I wondered whether it would remain as vacant as some of the new condo complexes that border part of the High Line. The complicated structure is divided by the walkway, framing the surrounding views.

And what views they are. I snapped several clear pictures of the Empire State Building and the Chelsea Piers. Apparently the vista gets even better in the winter, when the trees lose their leaves and no longer obscure the East and Hudson rivers.

At 22nd Street, I stopped for a coconut-flavored Mexican ice pop at La Newyorkina, Fany Gerson’s vending cart. The temperature was above 90, and Fany was tending to a long line of sweaty customers.

“In a city with so much hustle and bustle, it’s an escape,” she said of the High Line when she got a break. “It’s very different from Central Park. You absorb the nature of the city.”

I had to agree with Fany. Nothing about the High Line reminded me of Central Park. That’s partly intentional. A sign at one of the access points laid down somewhat draconian rules. Among the many no-no’s: dogs, bikes, skateboards, skates and gatherings of more than 20 people. All things you’d often find in Central Park.

That’s partly what has made the High Line one of Jillene Johnson’s favorite places to relax. “You feel like you’re getting a break from the city and also getting the best of the city,” said the Manhattan resident, who was sitting on the 23rd Street lawn along with a woman sunbathing, a young man reading and three shirtless men doing squats.

Two blocks later, I was walking on the Falcone Flyover, a steel catwalk that rises 8 feet above the plant beds and runs through a canopy of trees. Tucked between two large warehouses, it provided shade from the unforgiving sun.

At 26th Street, I sat on one of the benches at a viewing area over 10th Avenue that provides a kind of window onto the neighborhood.

Lots of other benches are made of reclaimed teak, with imperfections in the wood such as fastener and nail holes, giving the benches character and a sense of history.

History, as it happens, is well preserved all along the High Line. The trains stopped running in 1980, but the plant beds don’t completely conceal the original tracks. Other elements have been restored, including the Art Deco railings.

A new temporary public plaza with an outdoor bar operated by Colicchio & Sons at the bottom of the stairs at 30th Street seemed a bit out of place but was a welcome sight after my sweaty stroll. There’s a booth where you can buy tickets for drinks, and there are food trucks. (Care for a taco?)

Even more out of place is Rainbow City, which is billed as another art installation but looked to me like a collection of mushroom-shaped moon bounces. Actually, the structures are 10- to 40-foot-high “air-filled” sculptures that will be on display until July 5.

The city hopes to restore the remaining one-third of the High Line that wraps around the Hudson Rail Yards between West 30th and 34th streets. In the meantime, the last stop on the elevated portion of the Line will be above the beer garden at 30th Street, with a cutout viewing platform so you can stand on a grate and peer down onto the street. But I’m glad it’s not truly the end of the road just yet.

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