I remember when the High Line opened in 2009: amid the reports of overcrowding, I heard people gushing about the greenery, the views and, of course, the famously non-reflective windows of the Standard Hotel. Everybody in New York thought it was the new Central Park.
But now it’s late winter, and everybody’s long since moved on to other novelties (fake snow in Union Square, anybody? How about an indoor park?). The weather’s been unnaturally nice in the city, so I decided to go for a walk on the High Line. To do that, of course, I had to take the subway. Only in New York: going underground to go aboveground.
There were the usual groups of tourists, and occasional couples wandering up and down the pathways. But the plants were pretty sparse, and as I looked up at the Standard, I had to shield my eyes. So I was surprised to feel more relaxed, at a remove from the city, even though I could see skyscrapers in the distance.
Why was anybody here, really? What do parks have to offer in the winter? Are New Yorkers so starved for nature that they have to make pilgrimages to these carefully tended gardens to get their green fix?
If this is a problem New Yorkers face, they’re not alone. My friend Daniel works in Paris, and decided to make a day trip in July out to Giverny, about an hour away (less if you go 150 km/hr, of course). He dragged along three more people in his rental car, and they couldn’t stop remarking on how relaxed they felt after a trip to Monet’s gardens. It was a way of escaping, yes, but the greenery itself had a way of settling their souls after so much time in the steel and glass and concrete of the city.
I came back from the High Line and pulled out my copy of Wordsworth’s poems. It fell open, as it usually did during my Romantic Poetry class in college, to Tintern Abbey. As the rhythms rolled over me, my eyes caught on the stunningly contemporary lines:
These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man's eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and 'mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart . . .
By the end of the poem, Wordsworth has found himself revitalized by the mere memory of nature. A romantic sentiment, certainly, but one that makes some sense of the High Line’s popularity in winter. If Eliot is right to declare that “humankind cannot bear very much reality,” then the High Line is a way of escaping that reality, for a moment, in order to recall feelings far more real.
image credit: nycgovparks.org