Paradise Lost

When the High Line above Manhattan's West Side turns into a park, a secret world will disappear

Over time, the dirt between the rails became a bed for robust violets, staghorn sumac, and Kentucky bluegrass. Seeds sprouted into plants, which decayed, fostering the next year's growth. Although the landscape architects expect to use existing vegetation as a guide for the park's greenery, concrete walkways will replace the uninterrupted fields of tall grasses—lush and green in the summer or dried golden like wheat in the fall. Chances are much of the Chinese bittersweet, with its pert orange berries, will be replaced by a plant that won't aggressively overtake its neighbors. And the trees struggling upward, which have dug their roots deep into the railroad bed, will be rooted out.

Not all plants on the High Line grow wild. One of the most enchanting spaces is an unexpected garden, meticulously landscaped like a suburban lawn. One corner of the plot is marked by a mature tree, encircled with purple petunias. Roughly 25 feet on, a second tree and a white plastic birdbath are surrounded by a sea of fuchsia impatiens. Dozens of well-watered sunflowers grow between the tracks' ties, their faces reaching eastward, communing with the nodding marigolds, black-eyed Susans, and red snapdragons.

A few blocks further south, the High Line morphs into a small woodland, with crowds of sparsely leaved trees stretching 15 to 20 feet high. Goldenrod and a smattering of violet flowers decorate the ground, and a narrow path snakes through the wilderness. On the west side, a warehouse looms eight stories over the tracks, creating a feeling of shaded seclusion. Only a few minutes beyond the miniature forest, within sight of Chelsea Piers, the environment changes drastically. The short, dead grass could almost be a harvested wheat field on the prairie. The sky seems vast, with few buildings hemming it in, and an unrelenting sun pounds down.

The solitude and tranquillity of the High Line—only feet above hectic Manhattan—are what I'll miss most. It's a rare find, a remote natural habitat hidden in the city, complete with an outdoor art gallery. And while I welcome the park, it will never be this earthy sanctuary of mental reprieve.

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