The Elevated Garden, New York Style

Another post so soon is rare for me, but I’m off to Sicily in a couple of days and before leaving wanted to take a quick look at the High Line, the elevated garden in New York that was inspired by the Promenade Plantée in Paris that I talked about in my last post (‘A Unique Promenade’).   As I mentioned in that post, both projects were based on the same concept – take an abandoned railway line in a run-down neighbourhood in the heart of a big city and transform it into an elevated walkway lined with plants and trees.

(The appearance of my offspring in the following photo is due to the fact that when I got back from New York and was going over my photos this turned out to be the only one I had taken of the High Line from street level. Merci, les enfants.)

Rather far in the background, the High Line at 23rd and 10th Ave.

As in Paris – maybe even more so in New York – the newly created green space provided a much appreciated oasis of tranquillity and people wanted to not just walk along it, but to live next to it.  New apartment buildings sprang up along the once dilapidated rail line.  And older buildings got rejuvenating – and sometimes unusual facelifts.

On a blank wall, the ‘backside’ of an older building, was a colourful and, at the time, mystifying mural.   The words are from the last line of ‘The New Colossus’, a poem on a plaque inside the Statue of Liberty that the High Line website describes as ‘an ode to the freedoms promised by immigration [that] thousands of new arrivals passed by as they made their first steps in the United States’.  The mural is part of Agora, a group exhibition commissioned by the High Line that will be on view from April 2018 to March 2019.

One of several works of art in Agora, a group exhibition that ‘looks at the role of art in defining, creating, and using public space’. 

But that Friday afternoon I had no idea what I was looking at, and while I would have benefitted from taking one of the tours provided by ‘Friends of the High Line’, April was the only time my (employed in Toronto) son and (student at Columbia) daughter could manage a visit and the tours are held May to September.

Unlike the newer buildings, the windows of the older ones face away from the once ugly rail line.

Through the trees – amazingly, full grown trees survive up here – another mural faces the path. I don’t know if it’s part of the High Line or an independent effort.

There was so much going on – and the crowds got bigger as we made our way south – I almost missed this little church.

Unlike the church along the Promenade Plantée.

The churches weren’t the only difference.  The High Line was unapologetically educational as well as political.  (That’s probably something only a Canadian would say, since apparently we’re always saying sorry.)

All along the line, plaques with fascinating bits of information.

In addition to the Art Tours, there are also Garden Tours and Wildlife Tours (?) and a Honey Harvest later in the season.

The High Line may be half the length of the Promenade Plantée, but the developers are obviously making the most of every bit of it.  One can only hope they don’t overdo it or the plants will be left in shade.

Another big difference here is the number of large areas for gathering. And sitting.  And Thai Chi and meditation and Latin dancing and Stargazing and lunchtime reading sessions.

Like an amphitheatre, row after row of wide benches where you can sit, have lunch or watch the street below.

‘We are 11 million’ is another piece in the Agora commission. As I found out later, it is by Andrea Bowers, described on the High Line website as ‘a Los Angeles-based artist working in video, drawing, and installation, combining art and activism to foreground the struggle for social justice.’  The number, which I also did not understand at the time – I thought it might have something to do with the number of visitors to the park – do American visitors recognize its significance? – represented ‘the DREAMers […] individuals who came to the United States at an early age without documentation, who have assimilated to U.S. culture, and who have been educated in U.S. schools’.

11 Million, the number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

Agora, continues the website, is the ancient Greek square – ‘the public gathering area that was the core of commercial, artistic, political, and spiritual life in old city-states like Athens’, an area that artists throughout the centuries have used as ‘theaters and arenas for performances and collective actions [to] mobilize a kind of collective voice of the people’ [and where] ‘by manipulating our expectations of what does and does not belong in these ostensibly collectively owned spaces, artists challenge what public spaces are, how they’re made, and who they’re made for’.

Definitely not the Promenade Plantée.

Even where there is a wide open space along the Promenade Plantée, as at the Jardin Reuilly

…and a children’s playground…

…and sports/fitness area, these spaces are fenced off and clearly separate from the walkway.

What really strikes even the yet-to-be educated visitor to the High Line is the extent to which the garden’s origins have been preserved and incorporated into the design.

In sections like this especially, the plants and design of the ‘beds’ reflect the wild state of the tracks after the line was put out of service.

As at the Promenade Plantée I was sorry to be visiting the High Line while it was still largely dormant. Notwithstanding the ‘Monthly Bloom List’ for April, apart from a few species tulips and narcissus, other plants and trees that would normally have been in bloom – like the Redbud, my favourite spring tree – were just beginning to show a hint of colour.

And one last thought – if there was ever a question as to how much the culture we live in influences what we do and create, I think the answer lies here – in this New York City garden that took an existing concept from Paris and made something so different.



A Unique Promenade in Paris

At the end of my March trip to southern France, I spent a couple of days in Paris, staying in the same hotel my daughter and I had stayed in a few years earlier.  I loved the location, on the Left Bank between the Panthéon and Notre-Dame, two of my favourite buildings in Paris.

The Pantheon of Paris was even more beautiful against a rare spell of clear, blue sky.  The only thing marring its beauty being the unfortunate dedication – Aux Grands Hommes.

Unlike the Pantheon in Rome, another of my favourite buildings, which is dedicated to all the gods, male and female, the French Panthéon is dedicated only to the country’s  ‘Grands Hommes’.  Great Men.

A quiet moment early one morning at the Pantheon in Rome before the crowds arrive.

If the weather had been better, I would have taken the time to visit the interior of the Panthéon – if only to see the shrine where the ashes of one of France’s Grandes Femmes now lie.  (Marie Curie, whose ashes were brought here from a nondescript town in April 1995.)  But on the horizon more of the dark clouds that dogged my days in Paris were starting to form.

The sun momentarily lights up one of the grand rose windows of Notre-Dame.

Dark clouds over the Musée d’Orsay echo the blue-grays of the art gallery’s rooftop.

So instead I headed for a unique, but relatively unknown garden.  And since it was on the way, I decided  to check out another garden, also lesser known – at least to foreign tourists – where, despite the unseasonably cool temperatures, I hoped to see lots of colourful spring flowers.  An enormous bed at the entrance dashed any hopes of that.

The sight of this lone pansy in bloom dashed any hopes of finding bright spring colours.

The garden goes by the rather odd name –  Le Jardin des Plantes.  The Garden of Plants.  Or, sometimes, to avoid confusion with other such gardens, Le Jardin des Plantes de Paris.  Which didn’t strike me as any less odd until I found out it’s a shortened post-French Revolution form of the garden’s original name – le Jardin royal des plantes médicinales.   The Royal Garden of Medicinal Plants.

Close by, not the kind of thing you’d expect to find in a royal garden.

Nowadays, despite the loss of its royal pedigree, the Garden of Plants is the most important botanical garden in France, which means it is enormous – 28 hectares (70 acres) – and is surrounded by a host of grand buildings with grand names – la Galerie de Géologie et de Minéralogie,  la Grande Galerie de l’Évolution  and les Grandes Serres (Greenhouses) all of which, like the garden itself, have been classified as Monuments Historiques.

In the background Les Grandes Serres.  The truly grand greenhouses.

To the casual eye there wasn’t a lot going on, but the gardeners knew better.

There was at least a dozen of them, students I gathered, working under the watchful eye of the fellow with the brown hat.

Large chartreuse clumps provided the main colour. From a distance they reminded me of Alchemilla.

But close up, the flowers of Euphorbia veneta were much sturdier than the Lady’s Mantles we plant in our gardens.

And if you looked hard there were other small splashes of colour.

Little patches of the dainty, but tough Pasque Flower were in bloom. Right on time for Easter. Pâques in French.

With the (slowly) rising temperatures, the gardeners had lifted the roof of the little greenhouse in which a clump of tender Gladioli had overwintered

Next to the mini gladioli greenhouse was a plant label that looked more like something you’d see in a book of fairy tales than a botanical garden.

What does it say about our cultures that in English we see a ‘Lamb’s Ear’, while for the French it’s the  ‘Ear of a Bear’?

A little further on there was another sign. What the veau (calf) is holding is definitely an arum. But where does ‘Calf’s Foot’ come from?

The whimsical panels were part of a special exhibit. If the children found it as much fun as I did, it was going to be a huge success.  Who knew our dandelion came from ‘The Lion’s Tooth’?  Dent-de-lion.

I’ve seen a lot of ferns, but not one has ever made me think of an eagle. The illustration explains all.

In a few weeks these enormous Platanes (Plane aka Sycamore) will be covered in foliage, forming an enormous tunnel.

While I was delighted to discover the ‘Garden of Plants’, it was frustrating to be there just before it really started to come to life. I hoped there would be more going on in the next garden, which was over in the 12th arrondissement where the infamous Bastille once stood.  A bit of a hike, but there was no direct route by Métro and the traffic was so bad it would have taken longer by bus.  If I’d been able to figure out the routes.

It’s called La Promenade Plantée.  The Planted Walkway.

Unlike the Panthéon or Notre-Dame you could walk right by and have no idea what you are looking at.

It is an elevated walkway, lined with plants, built on top of an obsolete railway line.  Like the High Line in New York, only longer and built a couple of decades earlier. I started at the Viaduct Daumesnil.   The entrance is around the side of the renamed  ‘Viaduct of the Arts’.

From a ruin slated for demolition, this section of the track has been transformed into a thriving art centre with 45 studios – arts and crafts, workshops, galleries, and of course a café.

A notice at the entrance sets the tone.

This is a place for walking.  Jogging is permitted as long as it does not bother the walkers.

The walkway, occasionally referred to as la Coulée Verte (Green Belt) is 4.7 k (2.9 miles) long.  Which makes it almost twice the length of the High Line and much too long on top of all the other walking I had been doing.  So I only went as far as the Reuilly garden.

Even going only as far as Reuilly was two and a half k round trip.

The basic concept for both the High Line, which I had visited the previous fall, and the Promenade Plantée is the same.  Take an obsolete railway line in a run-down section in the heart of a major city and create an elevated public park.  But as I walked along the walkway in Paris it was fascinating to see how different the two parks were.

Along one side, elegant apartment buildings in classic Parisian style.

On the other side newer, modern apartments replaced the buildings that had fallen into disrepair in the previously run-down, low rent neighbourhood.

The new buildings had been built so close to the line, it was as if the Promenade was an extension of their balconies, many of which were richly planted.

In some stretches the path was narrow, perfect for intimate tête-à-têtes.

In other places, especially where it crossed over a wide avenue, the path opened wide up.

At the end of one avenue, the Gare de Lyon, the train station you take for Provence.

The difference between the views from one side of the path and the other could be startling.

In a couple of places the newer buildings seemed to grow right out of the path.

Imagine the nightmare getting the permits must have entailed.

Or the engineering and design headaches involved in retrofitting older buildings into the new.

There were a couple of joggers, who were very careful not to bother the promeneurs.

This old jogger stood out for his remarkably minimal walk/jog pace. And also because, as I watched in disbelief, he stopped not far from here and went  into the bushes where, hidden from sight, he stayed for a bit, and then came out and resumed his walk/jog. Only in Paris.

Occasionally there was a natural, almost rustic section.

This ‘natural’ area had a Maison des Insectes. Bug Hotel.

But for the most part it was like a typical jardin à la française, with clipped box and yew, formal beds and elegant columns and arches.  And hundreds of rose bushes just starting to leaf out.  Definitely something to come back to in May or June.

Classic French elegance.  Apart from the bilious garbage bags.

The sun came out as I approached the Viaduct and I was almost tempted to redo the whole walk.  Almost.

Next:  Same Concept, Different Result – New York’s Take on the Elevated Garden