Evening Presentation: Rick Darke, January 17, 2014

Part I: The High Line
Part II: Reclaimed Garden Scapes of the World

The headliner this evening was the High Line in New York City, a linear public park, a 1½ mile elevated section of what was an abandoned freight-line through the meatpacking district on Manhattan’s West Side. Other sites and structures in the United States and Europe that have had their value recognized, in their disuse or dereliction, were introduced as well.

Rick Darke, resident of the Philadelphia area, is a botanist, landscape architect, ecologist, prolific author and photographer; he wears/has worn, a number of other hats, two having been Taxonomist Assistant, beginning in 1977, then Curator of Plants from 1986-1997, at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.

This is a short recount of the High Line’s history, its resurrection and the many factors involved with this endeavour. The philosophy of biodiversity and sustainable landscapes coursed through the lecture.

A key word we were asked to keep in mind from the outset was palimpsest – to remind us of “the layering of cultural icons, people and plants.” To review, here is a Funk and Wagnall’s definition: “A parchment, manuscript, etc., written upon two or three times, the earlier writing having been wholly or partially erased to make room for the next.”

The High Line, built in 1934, is that section of the former New York Central Railroad, reset 35-40 feet in the air. This adjustment was a matter of safety: trains, horse-drawn carts and buggies, people on horseback, pedestrians and automobiles all used the same thoroughfare. It was a dangerous mix, hence its pre-1934 nickname, Death Avenue.

Rail traffic stopped in 1981 (a carload of frozen turkeys riding the rails that led directly into a building was the last delivery) and the structure was left to be ignored or maligned until serious talk of its demolition began in 1999. Under this threat, those who cared, rallied, met with the railway people, studied the site, considered its potential as a park, the financials, etc., and went to work.

A team of advocates attracted benefactors and volunteers: they sought ideas worldwide (not designs initially). Children participated too. A proposal from James Corner Field Operations and the architectural firm Diller, Scofido-Renfro, one of many submissions, was eventually selected; in Rick’s words, “a brilliant choice.”

We were reminded that this project and the Internet evolved together – a most propitious occurrence. Good photos were a key influence in attracting supporters to raise the 185 million US dollars required. Rick’s photos covered every angle, including shots from the Empire State Building.

To start, the greatest expense was the remediation of the lead-painted railings; there followed responses to other by-laws and the tagging, removal, storage and, in time, placing of the rails in their original positions. The plants cost $800 per lineal foot; tens of thousands of plants would be hoisted by crane onto the High Line to clad its first mile.

In the meantime, for one short period, a very active public plaza with outdoor pub, etc., sprang to life close to the Line’s undercarriage with its heavy, beautiful design work – work that also exists at intersections along the Line’s tracks.

The City of New York owns the High Line. It is the Friends of the High Line, a non-profit conservancy that supports approximately 90% of the operating budget. The first section opened in June 2009, the second, in June 2011. The third section, the last half mile, is expected to open this year and will be left natural.

Well in advance of some of the preceding steps, the ‘volunteers’ along the abandoned line were botanized: these plants, a 50/50 count of natives and exotics, were completely unattended over the years and had naturally organized themselves along the tracks. This was a marvel and encouragement as to the possibilities in reshaping a sustainable garden in this unique setting.

There were no plant lists accompanying the lecture as they could be a distraction to the unfolding experience. “It’s better not to anticipate.” “You are impressionable when you are vulnerable.”

Briefly a few participants: dwarf bearded-iris, chives, Linaria vulgaris, native cherries, and a rare mint. The plan was to continue a balance to some degree, of natives and exotics, more exotics this round, adding only those with appeal and the same traits of durability and longevity as the originals. It was to be an all-seasons-garden as beautiful and interesting in decline and dormancy as in flourish. A partial list: Achillea, Aster oblongifolius, Celastrus, Gillenia trifoliata, goldenrod, Liatrus aspera, sedums, and yellow alliums. Some trees are to be included, bearing in mind a rooting depth usually no greater than 18-inches.

Many talented people were involved but it is Piet Oudolf who was the principal. Rick called him “a good man, a modest man” and one well qualified to create “a meticulously designed yet natural garden” – a matrix of interwoven textures, with signature grasses; thereafter, stewardship, observing what’s doing best and, “the introduction of order by reduction.” Piet returns occasionally to edit and adjust. Some irrigation is being installed in the second section, but not to everyone’s approval. Hundreds of volunteers turn out for the big March cutbacks.

Listed as one of the top ten sites to see in North America, there are six-million visitors per year, drawn by this park so improbably situated with its Big Apple corridor views, towering profiles of surrounding [modern] buildings with some old-timers to keep them company. There is also a spur in the track that affords a glance back over ground traveled: the overall impact is highly dramatic.

It is considered a welcoming place and remarkably safe and polite. The welcome includes good pathways (pavers can be picked up and rearranged), movable seating (peel-up benches), a 250’ stretch of lawn upon which to walk, sit, sprawl – a freedom which does trash the area in a week. No matter, it is given a chance to revive, and then re-opened. There is a water surface to walk on in summer, a billboard close-by, always introducing new artists; a screen is available, lectures are hosted and food venues are being steadily introduced. Among the visitors are the resident foragers: birds, butterflies, bees and other insects . . . spectacles and objects of study themselves.

Rick also sees this elevated place as theatre, a stage, and has noticed that some people like to dress up, respond in the spirit of the promenade, the runway; it elicits some “Ta Da! – look at me” moments.

The High Line has been a magnet in its great success as hotels and residences predominantly have ‘snugged’ in to this special garden. Here are a few of the new or refurbished structures designed by famous homegrown and international architects: IAC, the American Internet Company, nine-stories of sculptured concrete with an etched white glass façade. Frank Gehry.

The Standard Hotel, on stilts, straddling the High Line. “A wild and wooly place.” R.D. Eighteen stories, concrete with extensive use of glass, x-rated occasionally, as with the other buildings has excellent views, working exceedingly well both ways apparently. Privacy unaddressed.

The New Whitney Museum of American Art. Renzo Piano.

Hudson Yards, an office building integrated with the last phase of the High Line.

The High Line Hotel, formerly the General Theological Seminary, a mid-1800s brick building featured like an old friend a few times throughout its life in Rick’s slides. The hotel’s web advertising says it all:

“The High Line Hotel, much like its groundbreaking, elevated namesake 50-yards to the west, is not a simple homage to the past but rather builds on this epic, distinctly American history, guiding it directly into the heart of the contemporary city.”

In this category to some extent, more as a relic, the most literal palimpsest and, on a very sombre note, a piece of signage faint, still legible – CUNARD. It was to this pier that the survivors of the Titanic were brought by the liner, RMS Carpathia.

Rick said that we have all kinds of niches in the modern environment and referred to “preservation by neglect.” The final chapter in the presentation was devoted to other sites and structures. The following are a sample of those we visited: Shelburn Falls, Massachusetts, the earliest high line garden, a Bridge of Flowers, a 400-foot arched trolley bridge, built in 1908, bankrupted in 1927 and with the relative good fortune to be too expensive to destroy despite most residents finding it an offense to the landscape; in its favour also was the fact that it carried a water-main from one community to another. Planted in 1928, as a result of one woman’s vision supported by the local Women’s Club, it continues to be a much-visited destination.

Gantry Park at Long Island City, “a lush greenway hugging the waterfront,” a former industrial space (Pepsi bottling, an oil refinery).

Reading Viaduct Rail Park, Philadelphia – one mile of elevated track in the downtown area, currently home to wild grasses. The hope is, given the resources, that it will become another High Line.

The Carrie Furnaces site, Pittsburg, a steel mill built in 1884, closed in 1982. Rick showed us his photos, taken from a helicopter, of this mammoth structure in “a severely depressed area,” surrounded by 30-acres, a meadow, growing in concrete rubble. It has become visitor-friendly – think pleasant walks, picnics and a tourable edifice.

Similarly in Europe: Germany’s Duisberg Landscape Park, an old iron/steel making site. Nothing has been planted; all is regenerative, “left to chance and possibility.” It features wall- climbing, is intensely sculptural, lighted at night, a family place.

The Schoneberger Sudgelande Nature Park in the SW corner of Berlin, a former rail yard. From its web site – “A species-rich natural oasis developed in the heart of a major city.” High quality graffiti is a feature.

In Paris, an elevated part of the old Cherbourg line. Rick praised the preservation of this handsome, intact structure and the creation of its garden walkway – in this case, with a very formal, high-maintenance planting. No salute to the poppy or other wildflower. In terms of the evening’s sustainability motif, it did not receive full commendation but credit was given where due: A section of rail-line is being preserved, used, and enjoyed and, as a result the surrounding area has been cleaned up and become vibrant and prosperous.

Rick has a philosophical kinship with a number of individuals who are not his generational peers. He referred to the thoughts and writings of Sydney Smith (1771-1845), English wit, writer and Anglican cleric; Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882); and especially William Robinson (1838-1935), the progenitor of natural gardens, sustainable landscapes and the steward of his own 1,000 acres at Gravetye Manor, Sussex.

Note: “The Wild Garden”, William Robinson, first published 1870.

“The Wild Garden”, Expanded Edition, William Robinson with new chapters and photography by Rick Darke, 2009.

It was an exceptionally interesting evening. With all the information and images, including the charming vision of William Robinson casting seeds out of the window of the Bluebell Railway train that carried him from his home in Sussex to his office in London, one was left reeling out of the theatre.

Palimpsests and legacies!

~ Trudy Dixon

Rick has an extensive website which documents his many achievements and projects and is definitely worth a look.