Volume 76, Number 22 | October 18 - 24, 2006

Villager photos by Jefferson Siegel

Seed collectors on the High Line, looking north from 27th St.

Saving flora from where freight cars once rumbled

By Albert Amateau

A perfect October afternoon — no clouds, little wind and cool temperature — brought out about 60 men and women to the still wild north end of the High Line to collect seeds from the wind-sown plants growing on the railroad viaduct for 25 years.

Equipped with clippers and paper bags and led by botanists from the Department of Parks and staff members of Friends of the High Line, the collectors in groups of 10 entered at 34th St. where the rail line dips to street level before it proceeds north below grade.

The High Line’s southern portion — from Gansevoort to 20th Sts. — is in the midst of being transformed into a park-in-the-sky and is stripped down to steel and concrete, so the seed collectors went down only as far as 23rd St.

“I wanted to come here while it’s still wild,” said Tara Giles, of Brooklyn, “to get some before-and-after pictures. I’ll get the ‘after’ pictures when the park opens.” Giles, who works with Bette Midler’s New York Restoration Project, has been following the progress of the High Line project for a couple of years, and the fine weather on Oct. 14 brought her to 34th St.

A monarch butterfly alights on some throughwort on the High Line at 30th St. and 10th Ave.

The south end of the project, with stairs and elevators from the street, footpaths, benches and plantings that approximate the wild growth is expected to be open to the public in the spring of 2008, and the conversion of the north end will follow.

“Plants mature at different times,” Meredith Taylor, Friends of the High Line special events director, told a small group of collectors. “So we’re focusing on four species today. A couple of weeks ago the tall throughwort was at its height and the High Line was full of monarch butterflies that feed on them,” Taylor recalled.

The seeds — 74 species grow on the High Line, 39 of them native to this region — will go to a seed bank at the Department of Parks’ Greenbelt Natural Plant Center on Staten Island. A selection from those seeds will be planted at a Greenstreets space at street level close to the High Line at 14th St. and 10th Ave. as a mirror of the original High Line flora.

“Field Operations, the design team for the project, also hopes that some of these seeds will be planted on the 34th-to-23rd-St. section of the High Line,” said Tim Chambers, director of the Staten Island plant center.

Collectors walking the High Line passed through what appeared to be definite zones of plant life. At 34th St. where the tracks are at sidewalk level, the plant life is lush and includes an apple tree loaded with ripe fruit. The apples looked and tasted like golden delicious and were delicious indeed. Some passerby must have tossed an apple core over the fence several years ago.

Two-foot-tall plants bearing profusions of small white flowers with yellow centers covered one section of the viaduct.

“Asters,” Chambers said. Similar plants bearing small violet flowers with yellow centers — another variety of asters — dominated another stretch.

Then came a patch of plants with spikes of waxy green pods.

“Primrose,” said Paula de la Cruz, a volunteer with Friends of the High Line who lives in the East Village and operates her own landscape consulting firm, Allscape Design.

“Primrose is rich in omega fatty acids and it’s used in supplements — good for vitamin E deficiency — definitely in the U.S.F.D.A. list,” said de la Cruz, who worked for Millennium Seed Bank in Britain in 2004. “We collected seeds in Africa — in Namibia — for three months. We slept on the banks of a river. Our truck fell into a hole. It was fun but very hard work,” she recalled.

Terry Cullimore, a Penn South resident, who was active in the successful two-year fight against the proposed Jets Stadium over the 30th St. rail yards, recalled that she had been on the High Line on a tour about a year ago.

“But this is different. This is doing something — collecting seeds so that future generations can see what we see,” she added.

One patch of the High Line at about 28th St. had trees 3 feet to 4 feet tall — silver maple saplings, small elms.

“They grow here where the buildings provide shade and trap moisture,” Chambers noted. Ailanthus, an import many years ago from China commonly known as “the tree of heaven,” which grows all over the city, is also a High Line species.

“We don’t need to seed bank ailanthus,” Chambers said.

Jan Levy, an Upper West Side resident and former member of Community Board 7, remembered that the late Peter Obletz, who died about 11 years ago, controlled the High Line for a while in the 1980s after paying Conrail a token $10. Obletz, who once lived in a railroad car in the 30th St. rail yards, organized The West Side Rail Foundation to preserve the elevated structure, completed in 1933 by the New York Central Railroad. The viaduct last carried a trainload of frozen turkeys to the Gansevoort Meat Market in 1980.

“Peter’s idea was that the High Line could be used to haul construction debris out of Manhattan,” Levy said. “If it weren’t for Peter, we wouldn’t be standing her now. I want to get Friends of the High Line to name at least part of the High Line for him,” she said.

The Bloomberg administration decided in 2002 to save the High Line. The city acquired ownership of most of the line from the last owner, CSX, in 2005 when the line was designated as part of the federal Rails to Trails program. However, CSX still owns the stretch from 34th St. to 30th Sts. that sweeps around the rail yards, as well as the spur that goes to the east to the Morgan Post Office Annex.

“The trail designation goes all the way to 34th St., but the city was hesitant about taking that stretch because there were still uncertainties about the park,” Meredith said. “We’re pretty secure now and we’re working with CSX on the change. CSX wants to give it up and the process is going pretty well.”

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