By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 10, 2009
Construction can have unintended consequences. Build a park on an old elevated railway train track in Manhattan, and a hotel that straddles that park, and New Yorkers turn the whole thing into a stage.
In the hotel's glass-walled rooms, you have guests who strut nude -- and more. Facing the park, on the fire escape of a nearby apartment building, you have a performance artist who stages nighttime cabarets of song and spoken word. And businesses and advertisers with displays at eye-level to the new park suddenly have a captive audience.
"It's a natural stage," said Patty Heffley, who has taken to giving evening performances on her fourth-floor fire escape since the third-floor-level High Line park opened June 9. "How could you not perform? There is a separation from the street, and a bit of anonymity."
In this city where neighbors keep telescopes trained not on the skies but on other neighbors, visitors in the know sometimes come to the High Line seeking a more burlesque kind of show from the windows of the adjacent Standard Hotel, said Nicole Thurmond, a security officer in the park.
"I've had people ask me which window they use," she said, noting that there's been action viewable in many a window. "My opinion is: If you want that, you should pay for it on cable."
Of course, there's more to the High Line than exhibitionism. It is an innovative and lovely stretch of walkways and greenery, with just the right suggestion of wild, and it is comfortable, with enough architectural flourish to make it also captivating. In places the rusted railway tracks are still visible, with wildflowers growing up through the gravel.
The High Line extends from Gansevoort Street north to West 34th Street, but the first phase of the park reaches only as far north as West 20th Street. A second phase of the park is scheduled to open at the end of 2010.
The first train passed over the elevated track in 1934, to avoid the deadly accidents common on the streets of a district that included hundreds of slaughterhouses and meat processing plants. But in time there was less need for the track, and the last train ferried three carloads of frozen turkeys across it in 1980. As the platform languished, a few neighborhood residents began to lobby to make it a park.
As the city prepared for the park opening, the escapades of guests at the newly constructed Standard Hotel, a towering, glassy building supported by massive concrete pillars on either side of the High Line, became a hot topic in a cold winter.
Most mornings, butchers from the Meatpacking District gather on the street around the High Line and gaze up into the hotel rooms, which have floor-to-ceiling windows and gauzy curtains that are often open.
Just after sunup, José Vásquez, a butcher for London Meat Co., pointed to a man wearing nothing but his briefs on the seventh floor, three rooms from the west. Then he noted another man in similar costume on the sixth floor. Then, on the eighth floor, three rooms in from the east, a manager who gave his name only as Jules pointed out a naked man hovering against the window for a good 15 minutes.
It's like a nudist beach in Manhattan, said Jules, bald and wearing a navy butcher's apron. "It's the same thing."
Evenings, it's not butchers but bouncers from nearby clubs and bars who keep watch on the hotel displays.
"It's kind of lewd," said Anthony Begnal, a security guard for Hogs & Heifers Saloon, who offers that he has seen it all. Rumors abound that couples have been seen in flagrante delicto in all kinds of positions before curtainless, backlit windows. It evokes the old days of the Meatpacking District when it was full of streetwalkers and seediness, some say.
These days, exhibitionism is more expensive. Rooms at the Standard start at $195, and run to $675 for a suite. Even inside, the hotel bathrooms are separated from the bedrooms only by transparent glass walls. And on its Web site the Standard also shows live webcam images of the outside of the building. Hotel owner André Balazs, who runs the Chateau Marmont as Hollywood's favorite no-tell luxury hotel, did not respond to requests for comment, and a police spokesman said the department has received no complaints.
The High Line has created several other kinds of stages. Inside the park is a glass-walled overlook onto the traffic of 10th Avenue below, and the city itself becomes the spectacle.
Businesses are taking advantage of a new level for street displays. The park provides a clear view to third-story-level advertising: Izod, Calvin Klein, "Transformers," State Farm. Part of the rezoning provisions for the park stipulated there can be no new ads, said Robert Hammond, one of two community residents who helped organize the High Line's preservation. But neighboring Phillips de Pury & Co., a contemporary art auction house, has moved some of its artworks to make them visible from its third-floor windows along the High Line.
Then there is Heffley. As night falls, she strings up lanterns on her fire escape and comes out with a few friends to perform in her all-new High Line Park Renegade Cabaret. Heffley, 55, has lived in the apartment on West 20th Street since 1978, when she came to New York to be part of the punk scene. She remembers when the last train came through the High Line, and when the platform started to grow over with weeds.
She said she always wanted to plant something on the tracks, which are a stone's throw from her fire escape. "I tried throwing sprouted seeds in a water balloon," she said. "I tried hard plastic Easter eggs -- I thought those would pop open and the seeds would plant."
"For 20 years, this was the only occupied building on the block," she said. "We were totally alone up here."
Her first clue that would change came when she perused the High Line Web site and found drawings that included her own bedroom and living room windows. Then came opening day, when people started traipsing through the park a few feet away.
"We have to do something," she told her friend, Elizabeth Soychak, a singer, who obliged with two three-song sets.
Since that debut, Heffley often has been uncomfortable by the close proximity to hundreds of parkgoers. "One night I was in my room and I sneezed and someone said, 'Bless you,' " she said.
"I just ordered curtains today," she said.
But she plans to keep hosting performances, and advertises on her Facebook page. She has big ideas for upcoming shows. A "weird, geeky science night," perhaps. An "old-timey bluegrass night," for sure. Maybe some acrobatics, "with someone that knows what they're doing," someone who could swing down the fire escape without falling off. Maybe even a bit of burlesque, "but you don't take it all off -- it's 9 o'clock at night."
Heffley always begins her show in a similar vein.
"This is in response to 31 years of privacy ripped away by the opening of the High Line on June 9," Heffley told her audience of several dozen on a recent night. "Rather than lie down and take it, I decided to exploit it."
"This is why I love New York," said many in the audience.
But why do people see the High Line and consider it a platform for performance? Professionals present at the show had their own assessments.
Said urban planner Lissa Frankel, "This space is removed from the landscape, which makes it more likely for people to feel safe here."
Psychologist Melissa Casey refused to make a definitive diagnosis: "People want an audience," she ventured. "Pathology is complex."