Saturday, January 26, 2013

Room For A View

In the midst of a cacophony of cars and cabs on the historic cobblestones at Gansevoort Street is a grey metal staircase leading up to a zone of relative quiet amid a grove of birch trees. This is the start of the High Line Park, the first section of which opened in June 2009 and stretches north, crossing over 10th Avenue and through the Chelsea Market to West 20th Street.

From the staircase’s first landing, the view includes the windows of the niche boutiques that now decorate the formerly drab and industrial Meatpacking District where butchers once dominated – Ted Baker, Trina Turk, Tory Burch and the High Line’s star benefactress, Diane von Furstenberg. These days, designer clothing on mannequins takes precedence over carcasses on hooks.

There’s sudden roar from below: revelers are sampling pints of German beer and cabbage-sized pretzels at the Standard Hotel’s Biergarten. Opened in early 2012, the hotel literally straddles the High Line: the Standard’s columns rise above the park line a grey rocket, albeit one made of brick and glass.

Beneath it, at street level, are cafes, the raucous Biergarten and the stylish Standard Grill, where designer-clad patrons click-clack across the floor – made from a composition of copper pennies – and lounge on curvaceous banquettes made from soft, berry-coloured leather.

Out on the footpath by the hotel, Michael Adams, an editor who has lived in the neighbourhood for 20 years, is walking his golden retriever, Pym. He saves his forays upstairs for human companions: he has to. The High Line conveys pedestrians only: no bicycles, skateboards or dogs. I don’t mind that dogs aren’t allowed up there,’ he says. ‘The High Line is a little ocean of tranquility whose sole reason for existing seems to be to make people happy. It’s a kind of masterpiece.

Near 14th Street, a toe-deep water feature spills over the walkway, encouraging pedestrians to remove their shoes and wade through a rippling pond as a rustic border of cattails catches the breeze. Women take off their sandals. Men remove their sneakers. Babies rush right in and plop themselves in the shallow.

Patient customer queue for ice lollies at the People’s Pops stall, where a hand chalked sign describes today’s flavoured ices, made with locally grown, sustainable fruit and herbs: a pungent toasted yellow plum and appealingly astringent apricot & lavender. Further along, above 15th Street, the Porch café serves artisanal beers on tap. Chilled-out groups chat and drink at umbrella tables, looking out to the river as cruise liners pass by the Chelsea Piers. Beer and wine are confined to the Porch premises, but the ice lollies, like the purple asters and radiant coneflowers blooming in the gravel track-beds, are enjoyed everywhere.

At the Sunken Overlook, the 10th Avenue traffic below doubles as the entertainment: wooden benches form a  mini-amphitheatre where viewers experience a voyeuristic slice of hectic street life through a four-sectioned window. Nearby, passers-by experiment with the ‘talking’ drinking fountains – pressing buttons to take a sip and listen to poetry, singing an helpful message.

‘Drink freely,’ says one. ‘However, please do not lick the fountain.’

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