On the Rails
By Laura Waxman
Welcome to the path – a skinny green ribbon that twists and turns and weaves through wilderness. You walk through caved-in hideaways, past deep crevices, and dusty alcoves. The garden smells earthy and strong with whiffs of manure and wet dirt. Peek into the grove one way and see the very green Lady Liberty, turn right and look north up 10th Avenue. You are in the center of Manhattan, eleven stories above pedestrians and taxis, and UPS trucks. In the High Line, you are caught between two wilds, between nature and city. On ground level, you are worker, beggar, owner, but here in the endless sky, you are dragonfly and luna moth, grey owl and whooping crane.
Originally a New York City Central Railroad spur called the West Side Line, the High Line was once a train that delivered freight to area businesses. Abandoned in the 1980s and discovered again in 1999, the public is free to walk the wilderness in the city amid high-rise art exhibits. Murals the size of billboards, clever street art, and even 6-foot tall sculptures by artists from Iceland, Mexico, Colombia, Georgia – all woven in throughout the tall weeds, locust trees, and summer flowers. To some it’s an iPhone panorama. To others, this place is simply escape, 30 feet up in the spine of New York City.
The 210 different kinds of plants on the High Line purify the air. Every year trees in New York City absorb 272 tons – the equivalent of 40 adult elephants – of air pollution: the truly loving redbud trees with dark green heart-shaped leaves, all the different extremely piney conifers including hemlocks, and 20 feet high buckthorns that tower above its other tree fellows. Big leaf magnolias with whorled and hairy buds and leaves twice the size of your face. Daffodils stand tall and loud like trumpets in spring alongside artichoke-green Asian grasses. Nannyberries hang above your head with red stems and navy blue berries. Red shiny winterberries scream out of the path in winter, blood dots against snow. Weeds settle long, skinny as needles, against the ferns and short young locust trees.
Don’t forget the unexpected wildlife: woodpeckers, finches, and bees enjoying the trumpet daffodils and neon-pink daisies. A peregrine falcon. Tapers and combs clear an edge to deep crevices of water that bleed back into the garden.
Bryant, my little cousin, climbs on the stadium benches and then bounces back to a shamrock green land of grass and then to the children’s playground, all with the biggest smile on his face. There he pops up out of the ground like a woodchuck or hedgehog. Bryant thinks this place is loud. Everywhere he hears echoes from west to east and back from the east to the west of loud construction, police sirens, subways, and the clickityclack of women’s heels on the metal floor bridge and wooden boards.
The graffiti on the nearby houses glows in all blues, reds, greens, and black in phrases and words Bryant keeps repeating. One of the buildings was once a women’s prison – they looked through stained glass windows and art deco engravings. In the 1960s that same building became a drug treatment facility. Before that, it was a place for sailors – immigrants who worked at the riverfront docks, warehouses, and factories. Some of those tenement buildings still stand as high as the trees on the High Line itself. A pair of these tenement buildings exist on 17th street across from one another. Another exists on 28th and 29th Streets.
A water pipe flows into the gutters, down from the High Line. You can stand toes deep in the current, right in the shade of the giant geometric glass figure that blends into sun and sky. All around you it reflects blue skies and dark storms, and sometimes even, if you’re lucky enough and brave enough, the early evening night sky.
My aunt tells Bryant and me that nature isn’t relaxed. It isn’t supposed to be. I want to tell her I know – that humans need beauty – and a certain constant peace – at least in small green doses.
The plush greenness of the High Line might find itself cloned in the home of Brotherly Love – the smell of Philly cheesesteaks meshing with flowers. Or maybe we can design a way for Chicago’s hot dogs to be devoured thirty feet in the air next to trees as tall as California redwoods. Maybe even cities like Los Angeles and St. Louis, Cairo and Mexico City could grow tall and green. Bryant tells me he can see the Pacific from here.
Laura is a sophomore environmental studies student at Ithaca College. She is currently leading an effort to integrate a rooftop garden onto one of Ithaca College’s residence halls. She has worked on conservation crews in Big Sur, CA and elsewhere and is dedicated to living her life as a steward of the land. After she graduates, Laura wants to pursue a career in enironmental law and policy.