By Elazar Abrahams
Happy New Year dear readers! I’m in the midst of planning some awesome content for the coming months. For now, I figured I would publish one of my recent college essays here on the site. Why, you might ask? Well, for one thing, I’m proud of the writing, and the topic is related enough to TV and City that it doesn’t feel out of place here on the blog.
In my ‘Parisian Views’ course, students were tasked with visiting the west side’s High Line Park and putting in dialogue with 19th century Paris. I hope you enjoy.
The High Line’s Peep Show
In 19th century Paris, a popular pastime among the rich was people watching. Tasked with nothing else to do, these men of leisure were known as ‘flaneurs,’ and they would idle throughout the streets of France to observe human behavior. In modern-day New York City, architects have created the ultimate place for 21st-century versions of these urban explorers.
Stretching almost a mile and a half, from 14th Street to 34th Street, the High Line crosses 22 city blocks 30 feet in the air, along the west side of Manhattan. Built upon freight train tracks that had not been utilized since 1980, the City acquired the property in 1999. Landscape architect James Corner, together with the design firm of Diller Scofido + Renfro and distinguished artist of natural landscapes, Piet Oudolf, worked quickly to create this half-mile promenade, with the first section opening in 2009. Throughout the next ten years, new areas of the High Line were developed, and the park has become a popular attraction.
One of the most prominent design principles in the High Line structure is continuity. The architects worked to respect the character of the High Line’s previous incarnation. The old tracks where trains once traveled now run down the center of the park, but even the newer parts of the park carry on the linear design. The grounds are narrow and long, with wood and concrete slender planks as a central design element. Walking from point A to point B in a straightforward motion, you are bound to get tangled up in a crowd of tourists snapping pictures for their Instagrams, or couples taking a romantic stroll. In a rush, you might be tempted to navigate the human obstacles in your way and swerve strategically around them. But if you pause, and roll with the pace of the promenade, you can become a part of the crowd.
The masses of a big city are intoxicating to a flaneur. In Charles Baudelaire’s prose poem ‘Crowds,’ he claims that “enjoying a crowd is an art” and there is something inexplicable about “the passion for roaming.” To connoisseurs of the streets like Baudelaire, a crowd is a “bath of multitude.” A place like the High Line, where you are right in the middle of the trotting line, is what Baudelaire describes as a “feverish delight,” akin to an “ineffable orgy” and “divine prostitution of the soul.”
While on a surface level, the High Line serves as a green oasis in the sky, removed from the drab grey streets below, the park is, in reality, defined by its proximity to the rest of New York City. The High Line often runs right up along buildings, sometimes even through them. Elevation provides the opportunity for expansive views of the city and the Hudson River, and furthermore, an intimate connection with office and residential buildings. It is possible to be outdoors and at the same time feel as if you are in the spaces that are visible from the High Line. While walking alongside a crowd, you can gaze down at the river and its patrons, then turn your shoulder and, through large glass windows, observe people working ‘9 to 5’ in an office, or peer into a family home. In other words, it is the ideal place to flaneur. From the High Line, you can see a petri dish of all sides of human interaction in their most private environments.
The experience of walking the High Line Park is reminiscent of another Baudelaire poem, ‘Windows,’ in which the author imagines the life of a middle-aged woman whom he watches through her window. As perhaps the most famous flaneur, Baudelaire writes that “there is nothing more profound, more mysterious, more pregnant, more insidious, more dazzling than a window.” What one can see while blending in with the crowd on the open High Line is crucial to a flaneur, but “is always less interesting than what goes on behind a windowpane. In that black or luminous square life lives, life dreams, life suffers.” As a flaneur, Baudelaire concocts fictional experiences, hopes, and dreams for this woman. He creates a life for her. “Out of her face, her dress, and her gestures, out of practically nothing at all, I have made up this woman’s story, or rather legend, and sometimes I tell it to myself and weep,” he professes. “If it had been an old man I could have made up his just as well.” He also declares what makes this a worthy pastime. A flaneur can “go to bed proud to have lived and to have suffered in someone besides [themselves].”
Some trouble has arisen from this invasive habit of peeping into windows. When the High Line first opened, a controversy arose regarding the nearby Standard Hotel, which, with its clear ceiling-high windows, became a space where park-goers could gaze at the hotel guests, which annoyed many of the patrons. Yet as time went on, many other guests seem to have embraced the fact that their once private living quarters were now in a sense, public property. Hyemi Cho, an artist who lives in an apartment visible from the park, decorated her windows with paintings for passersby to gawk at. On her online blog, she writes that “the window paintings have brought me, now an animal in a zoo, delightful interactions with people on the High Line. Every day, I see people laughing at the paintings and photographing them. Sometimes, I actually peek out and wave my hand… the surprise on their faces turns to excitement and they wave back, saying ‘hi’ with their hands.” Cho turned the fact that she was now being watched into an opportunity to use her space as a canvas for what she wanted others to see of her. In fact, real estate that neighbors the High Line has skyrocketed in value in recent years, with so many residents eager to engage in this twisted performance art.
In one sense, the High Line transforming from a place ‘to see’ to a place where people move ‘to be seen,’ defeats the purpose of a flaneur. If the subjects of a flaneur’s gaze are acting, what is the point? But Baudelaire says that it doesn’t matter if what he peers at is erroneous. When writing of his fabrication of the woman in the window, he argues that the truth of her life does not matter. “Perhaps you will say ‘Are you sure that your story is the real one?’ But what does it matter what reality is outside myself, so long as it has helped me to live, to feel that I am, and what I am?”
As the High Line space continues to be developed, the city has also embraced the park’s unique position as an observation point. During the past decade, new overlook sections have opened, like the one at 10th Avenue and 17th Street. The original steel beams of the High Line structure were removed to make space for an amphitheater-esque observation deck of the street below. Patrons are invited to bring their lunch, sit on the sleek wood steps, and study the traffic and pedestrians of the intersection from behind glass. As if knowingly tipping their hat to Baudelaire and the flaneurs of 19th century Paris, The High Line’s website itself describes this section of the park as an “extraordinary window.”
In 2011, the High Line’s food court and gift shop were established on the south end of the park. While it is not advertised as a big attraction, this section also provides a space to people-watch. As you saunter by the vendors and customers, you can’t help but be reminded of Édouard Manet’s 1879 oil painting Chez le Père Lathuille. This work depicts a Paris cafe as the flaneur’s territory. The painting exhibits a joyful vignette. The man in the central couple is seductive, staring right into his date’s eyes with his arm positioned around her. The woman seems quite amused. The space they occupy is beautiful as well. Much like the design of the High Line, Manet leaves this cafe open, showing the surrounding shrubbery and the Paris streets. The real subject of this piece, however, is the waiter behind the couple, humorously observing. He has no doubt created a story for these characters in his mind, much like Baudelaire in ‘Windows.’
The High Line is an anomaly. Yes, like any urban park, it functions as a de facto escape from the city, but at the High Line, your stroll in the park is not confined to the track. Rather, it extends out into your surroundings. The High Line offers new perspectives of New York; its relationship to the people and places that inhabit its neighborhood is essential to understanding what makes the park special. It gives visitors the opportunity to view and think about life in unexpected ways. It is safe to say that Baudelaire and the rest of 19th century Paris’ people-watchers would have been frequent patrons of this NYC landmark.