by Barry Drogin
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It is 8:15 am, another Shabbos morning. I leave my apartment building on Greenwich Street and turn to talk up Washington Street, working my way up the slow stairs to the Gansevoort Woodland. My weekly walk on the High Line will take 45 minutes, bringing me to the door of my shul on 34th Street at 9 am, just in time for the Morning Blessings of Shacharit.
When Section I opened in 2009, it was more of a choice whether to walk the High Line to shul or back on my way home. It meant walking west, away from a direct route, and then walking an avenue east on 20th Street, as the High Line naturally curves even further west. If I overslept and was running late, I would take a more direct but relatively boring route, in case I was needed for the minyan. Still, the High Line provided its pleasures, in particular a view of the building I have come to call the Yin/Yang Building (actually 459 West 18th Street, designed and developed by Della Valle Bernheimer). The first public art project on the High Line provided a site-specific peephole view of my favorite building and its environs.
I will never forget the first time I walked Section II of the High Line, when it opened in 2011. The Woodland Flyover, which I had read descriptions of, was an amazing experience, giving me the first opportunity in my life to reach out and touch the top of a leafy tree. But the confinement of the Flyover opened into the expanse of the Wildflower Field, an awesome view. It was then and there that I decided that the High Line could only properly be experienced walking from south to north, although I have traversed it in both directions many times.
As the years have passed, that expanse has become a victim of its own success. The resident at 315 Tenth Avenue has taken down the half-naked self-portrait from his window. His building is now bordered by the massive (and oddly spelled) Abington House, no relation to Abingdon Square in my neighborhood, and the view at 30th Street is now completely obscured by the massive construction of 10 Hudson Yards. Some High Line corridor views have been turned into canyons, with new buildings providing views of the High Line while the High Line strollers lose their Manhattan views.
These thoughts do not particularly concern me during my Shabbos walk. Although it is a Saturday, it is so early that the High Line is sparsely populated. There are art vendors setting up their tables; I cannot buy from them on Shabbos, I don’t know if they even notice me, or whether they have learned to ignore me. A few members of the High Line staff are out and about and, inevitably, some early morning photographers. The latter continue to amuse me, as the High Line and its horticulture must be among the most photographed in the world. I understand that photography is not just documentation, it is also composition, but I remain amused. There are also a few runners, joggers, and speed walkers, most plugged into private music worlds.
E.B. White wrote in the opening sentence of his famous essay about New York about its “gift of loneliness.” I have lived in New York City for over 35 years, I should be accustomed to the averted gaze. At this time in the morning there are other people, but they don’t interact with me. It is a stark contrast to the “Shabbat Shalom” greetings upon my arrival at shul, even from visiting tourists I do not know. Does no one notice the yarmulke, the tallis bag? Of course, I am in a unique position, living in the Far West Village, walking to shul at the border of Hell’s Kitchen (Midtown West, if you insist). It is now unthinkable for me to not walk the High Line to shul. I tell anyone who will listen that I have the best Shabbos walk in the city.
I am never engrossed in my own thoughts during this walk, I am always engrossed in the High Line. The photographers find a plant and focus in intently. The joggers don’t hear the sounds of the city, of the wind, of the plants, they are listening to their music and their own puffing. Every week I experience the High Line in its season, in its weather, with its changing roster of public art: the talking water fountains, the bird feeder, the bottle case, the phallic blob. Of course, the Standard Hotel, which is no longer occupied by exhibitionists (although checking cannot be resisted). The variations on a theme architecture by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the horticultural evolutions of Piet Oudolf. And the sparse population at this hour, seemingly oblivious to the experience I am having. I would gladly offer a “Shabbat Shalom” but the few people I pass are otherwise engaged.
As I write this in the summer of 2014, I have had a unique experience. For a few moments, there is no one in sight in front of me or behind me. I shout out, “The High Line is mine!” but no one hears me.
When services are over, I often walk one of the residents of Penn South back home. When I do use the High Line, it is packed with tourists and, at this time of year, uncomfortably hot in the direct sunlight. If you walk the High Line after sunset, it might be less crowded, but there is even less opportunity for interaction. The light focused at our feet leaves our faces unilluminated; if I did pass a neighbor or friend, I wouldn’t know until I am about to pass them. This is a much different experience from a stroll on the street or on the nearby Hudson River Park.
Of course, sometimes, when I can get them out of bed, I get to share my Shabbos walk with my teenage children. They are both old enough to be counted in the minyan, having become bar mitzvah, although soon one will be off to college, and then, in the blink of an eye, the other. I have shared the High Line with many of my friends, but not the Shabbos walk. Perhaps someday this old Jewish man will have someone to share the stroll with, both before and after services.
I had been considering writing about my Shabbos walk on the High Line for a while, and now that I am doing it, I wonder what effect it may have. Will photographers seek out the Orthodox Jew who walks the High Line? Will the vendors finally offer greetings? Will I get the occasional “Shabbat Shalom” from a stranger or from the staff? Will a visiting Jewish tourist make a stroll with the Orthodox Jew a part of their New York Shabbos experience, joining me and my congregation at synagogue?
These would not be unwelcome intrusions upon my Shabbos walk, but enhancements to it. Either way, the High Line is mine.
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