Yesterday we walked the High Line, a prettified length of elevated railway track that runs between the Meatpacking and Chelsea districts of West Manhattan. It offers a playful experience: stands of silver birch, wooden sun loungers that run for a little while on the rails of the old track, a lawn raised on a bed of moulded concrete, holly, bird cages full of brave sparrows pecking at pieces of fresh apple, banks of seating arrayed in front of a white wall used for film shows, or before a wide picture window framing the thundering traffic of a busy street. Most of the old iron railway tracks have been preserved, either embedded into the concrete path of the Line, or left alone, on beds of chipped stone and over-grown with self-seeded grasses, plants and trees. And either side of the High Line rise old factories and office blocks; building sites and parking lots sprawl below and in the distance the Hudson River and Jersey City.
A sound installation by Julianne Swartz transmits “computer-generated voices” which “speak messages of concern, support, and love, intermingled with pragmatic information” via water fountains and the rest room sinks.
We walked the 1.45 miles and back in sunshine and worked up a fine appetite for lunch (salads and glasses of cold Greek white wine at Jeffrey’s in Greenwich Village).
The High Line lives on as a city ‘greenway’ because of the action of community activists concerned about the Line’s possible dismantling, and the willing co-operation of the city authorities and benefactors. It is a fine and generous achievement.
It is also a sign that for the world’s haves, our age can be gentle and fun, especially in New York – though the rest of this city’s infrastructure (walked over the Brooklyn Bridge recently, or taken a ride on the Subway?) is deteriorating fast. And it is an act of veneration for the recent past: the days when cities like New York were still being constructed, and when their existence was based on manufacturing materials, rather than creating permissions, transactions and narratives. Western consumer societies miss making stuff, we feel a little empty; sated with buying other people’s products. Preserving industrial heritage allows us to demonstrate how much we respect the hard work of earlier generations, and reminds us that it wasn’t so long ago that we were getting our hands dirty and mixing and banging and raising factories rather than razing them.
How quickly New York is leaving these dirty, brutish ways behind it – quicker than it would like perhaps (see my notes on the sorry state of New Jersey).
Cities are such particular, self sufficient and unreasonable places which combine and stretch human beings to do their best and worst. Here, once again, New York is a world leader. And – really – the High Line is a monument to New York, not America. New York isn’t America; it is a trading city on the edge of the Continent. The High Line is wonderful but it isn’t a gauge of America in 2012. The images of America I will take home are less poised and self confident: the crumbling bridges and pot-holed streets, the dark and un-manned Subway, the poor country between New York and Washington, the military bases, the chaotic news channels pre-occupied with reporting street crime and celebrity news (it was tough to find coverage of Syria, or even the flip-flopping Republican Primaries), the young man on the subway on Saturday night telling his friend how the US economy would take 10 years to fix so why does the media keep talking as if someone’s going to come along and turn everything around in 6 months and his friend smirking and shaking his head and agreeing that “they just don’t get it”. Come back America.
On Friday afternoon we visited the 9/11 Memorial Site and gazed down into the deep black plunge pools, and walked among the corridors of white swamp oaks. Last night we watched Stephen Daldry’s ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’ in a cinema on West 42nd, just off the brightly lit hullabaloo and pop corn smells of Times Square. Our theatre was five floors up – that’s five escalator rides, one after the other – and my first thoughts as we sat down were about fire hazard. It felt eerie to watch this film in Manhattan. It is very moving: an autistic boy whose adored father was trapped high up one of the towers on “the worst day” follows what he believes to be posthumous clues laid down by his father on a trail that would re-unite them. A magical and collaborative family / community effort ensues and the boy is redeemed and finds the strength to move forward. The film closes with him finding the courage to ride the swings in Central Park which his father had tried in vain to persuade him were fun and liberating. This morning, walking through Central Park in a bitter cold wind I thought about the film and American story telling, and the fable this country represents. But I also wondered how many Iraqi and Afghani boys have lost their fathers in the events that have followed 9/11. How their story isn’t told. How only the sons of the victors get to be traumatised by the deaths of their hero-fathers. Are Drones a fine way to behave; will their assassinations really keep America safe? America’s potential to make the world a better place remains unmatched, but is it still interested? Come back America, or is it too late …