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The High Line: Sights and Sounds Above Manhattan


Stephen Vitiello’s sound installation, A Bell for Every Minute, located inside the High Line, can be seen as a direct counterpart to Charles Burchfield’s visual music, reviewed in the September issue of The Juilliard Journal. In his art work, Vitiello combines sounds into sculptural space. The installation is one of many public art works currently on view there. 

A recent image of the Washington Grasslands section, between Little W. 12th and W. 13th Streets

(Photo by Iwan Baan)

A recent image of the Washington Grasslands section, between Little W. 12th and W. 13th Streets

(Photo by Iwan Baan)


Perhaps you have heard of the High Line. It has been featured in many newspapers and magazines, most recently in The New York Times on September 3. When it first opened, lines of visitors formed for blocks; indeed, they were so numerous that pedestrian traffic had to be limited to one-way. Today it is altogether accessible and uncrowded. And until you visit it, you cannot really understand what it is. 

Now a kind of “art park,” it was built 30 feet above the N.Y.C. streets to serve as a railroad viaduct. The purpose of the original 1930s structure was to raise freight train traffic above Manhattan in the hopes of reducing the numerous accidents caused by collisions between trains and vehicular traffic. However, no trains have run on the High Line since 1980 and the neglected, derelict, and overgrown area was left to languish. Fortunately a number of community residents had a vision and obtained the support of New York City government, saving the rail line from demolition. It opened in its present form in the summer of 2009, and currently runs between 10th and 11th Avenues, from Gansevoort Street (a bit below 14th Street) to 20th Street, but is projected to extend to 34th Street.

Landscape architects James Corner Field Operations joined together with architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro (coincidently the same design team that renovated Juilliard and Lincoln Center) to restore and recreate this unusual park. You’ll recognize the open and innovative design—the ways in which glass and concrete combine, the curves, and the interesting vistas all have a similar feel to those in the new Juilliard, Tully Hall, and open Lincoln Center spaces.

You can climb up to the High Line at any one of five entrances: Gansevoort Street, 14th Street, 16th Street, 18th Street, or 20th Street. Elevators are located at 14th Street and 16th Street. The height is perfect. Expect to find yourself just high enough to get a good view of various parts of New York City and the Hudson River, but not above feeling a close connection with the cityscape.  

The planners’ concept of surrounding old pieces of rail with wild grasses and flowers preserves to some degree a nostalgic memory of overgrown railroad tracks. Changes of seasons produce new and different colorful combinations of plants and trees. These and the varying weather—and views of the sky—are important components of the park. The exquisite planting complements wood and concrete contoured, sculpted benches, chairs, and chaises. And along the way there are several pieces of public art, with many more scheduled to open in the near future.

The best aspects of the High Line include ambient, incidental, and unplanned sights and sounds of New York City. Panoramas of water towers, billboards, scaffolding, and signage for restaurants, the old and the new, and the variety of building styles epitomize the city for me. One view includes the Statue of Liberty, an American flag waving, and some cheap restaurants. Boat horns and traffic noises punctuate the park’s atmosphere. A clever innovation is the viewing area that consists of an amphitheater with tiers of concrete steps, at the bottom of which are four glass panels which frame the cars and trucks driving up 10th Avenue. From below on the avenue, you can also look up and watch the watchers.

The moving and inspired Vitiello A Bell for Every Minute is housed in the 14th Street passage and will remain in place for a year (until June 2011). For this installation, the artist recorded the sounds of 59 different bells throughout the city. Every minute a different bell rings or chimes, and at the top of the hour, a chorus of all the bells can be heard simultaneously. The map of New York City posted at the site allows one to trace the bells, adding to sound the components of space and distance. Bells range from Juilliard School bells (at 28 past the hour) to the New York Stock Exchange closing bell.  I thought it worth spending an hour listening to the United Nations Japanese Peace Bell, the U.S.A. Shaolin Temple’s small Chinese gong, boat whistles, fire whistles, and even the jingles of a belly dancer’s small bells. Excitement mounted as the hour approached.  Disappointingly, the chorus of bells lasted too short a time, but this inspires visitors to return. 

The only criticism I have of the installation is that it is housed in a visually unattractive setting, still under construction. It would have been more effective to have placed it next to Spencer Finch’s The River That Flows Both Ways, which is located in the Chelsea passage. Finch, in an attempt to photographically replicate the surface of the Hudson River, proceeded like Vitiello, by dividing his art work temporally, into minutes. In order to create it he spent 11 hours and 40 minutes taking one photo a minute of the surface of the river from a tugboat. At first glance the result looks like stained glass, but the grid of variously colored glass panes actually consists of Finch’s photographs. 

Both the bells and the photos invite comparison and contemplation with other sights and sounds of the High Line. The constant shifts and reflections of light, color, and sound magically alter time and place, inspiring thought and meditation. Interestingly, we refer to both sound and rippling water in terms of waves. And both water and sound transport us—one literally, the other figuratively. 

The High Line already features a number of art installations, but numbers of others are planned. All of them relate directly to the site.

The Internet contains a wealth of information about the variety of works, events, and the history surrounding the High Line. I would advise you to see it and experience it this fall before the weather turns cold.

For more information on the High Line, go to 

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