High Times on the High Line
How architecture reflects our soul
The post-industrial hellscape of the lower West Side of Manhattan has acquired a “park,” I discovered on a recent trip to New York, New York. Built on top of abandoned elevated tracks, this “park” boasts hardy grasses sprouting from concrete beds, waxy perennials designed to resist abuse, and the visitor who wanders the length of the High Line, as this “park” has been so drolly named, is treated to the horror of a birds-eye view of the concrete, steel, rust, and graffiti that makes up this ugly corner of this ugly city.
New Yorkers are enchanted by this inexplicable monstrosity, I discovered, and, when I visited on a Thursday evening in July, the park was thronged with exposed flesh promenading, children practicing cartwheels (on one small stretch of grass long enough to not break your head), and couples canoodling in the shade. What are we to make of this? New Yorkers have embraced ugliness and recommend it to me, a visitor, as a marvel of their city. What gives?
Brutal, brutal the architecture at every turn in America, even — dare I say especially — in New York. Our public spaces reflect our collective soul, concentrating it, burning us like a child torturing ants in the sun with a magnifying glass. We, the ants, seem to relish the torture we willingly undergo. To call such ugliness by the name of beauty requires more than ignorance. It requires a willing suspension of disbelief. Only by lying to ourselves about the true vileness of our cities can we prevent ourselves from going mad.
New York the glorious! New York the beautiful! Have you never seen such wonder? What towers, what power in thy storied rebar!
So New Yorkers go about their daily lives, madness simmering so near the surface that police, like blue cockroaches, swarm every street corner to keep the populace from tearing off its collective mask of civility and plunging the city into bloody cannabilism. (No wonder so many sci-fi flicks conceive of New Yorkers turning on each other in some suddenly-released frenzy of mayhem. You can tell a lot about a city by the stories it tells.)
Travel makes clear this brutal style of architecture is by no means universal. Where Manhattan is an island of concrete thuggery, muscles bulging, graffiti like a convict’s tattoos, other cities seek to delight, to humanize, to empower — not to threaten, to boast, to intimidate, as New York does.
Construction cranes arch skyward across the Berlin sky, replacing old five-story walkups with new five-story walkups. Five floors is the measure of man. What need we seek for the more-than-human, less-than-human insecure boastfulness of New York? The German capital feels content in its own skin.
Or consider Buenos Aires, a city quite as large as New York, thank you very much, that lavishes money on public washrooms. Never have I tinkled in so luxurious a urinal as in BA. How different from the brutal vileness of an American piss pot! Such shared spaces are of the people, by the people, and for the people — not just a condescending penny flicked to a starving beggar in New York by an Ayn Rand-reading American oligarch.
Yes, solidarity is alive and well and living in Argentina, where public spaces reflect mutual respect and a collective will to share, rather than the legalized plunder of America, and the city’s insensate will to power.
The arteriosclerotic heart of American capitalism beats on this tiny island fortress, de facto capital of the self-named Empire State. Can this be a coincidence? For what is capitalism but government-approved piracy? Are not Wall Street bankers little more than privateers in pin-striped suits?
New York’s brutal architecture is therefore the perfect pairing of ugliness with thuggery.
Far from the free market utopia of, say, Adam Smith, American capitalism is the rule by those who possess capital of those who do not, an auto-perpetuating system of wealth accumulation that impoverishes those who have less, both at home and abroad. (A system, by the way, that seems designed for inevitable failure. What happens when the plunder runs out?)
New York’s brutal architecture is therefore the perfect pairing of ugliness with thuggery. The Empire State Building is not a monument to progress, but a giant middle finger to the world the island’s pirates intend to subjugate. The High Line is a hellish nightmare of a “park” embraced by the city’s wage slaves like abused dogs whimpering in delight at a rotten scrap of meat.
And we, the people, unable to withstand a prolonged look in the mirror of the architecture that reflects our souls and what we’ve become, scurry, two-legged vermin, along the High Line, and pronounce ourselves happy.