In this installment of a somewhat regular feature, NYSUFC Board Member, author, blogger and Taking Root editor Jean Zimmerman shares her visit to New York’s High Line Park.

The Timber Bridge is a towering anachronism in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York City.

The structure forms the latest addition to the fabulous and ever-crowded High Line, the narrow park located on an old elevated rail bed that runs between Gansevoort Street and 34th Street on Manhattan’s west side, along Tenth Avenue. Once upon a time – ten years ago, say – if you happened to be passing through Chelsea you could wander up to the one-and-a-half mile long park and the sensation would be one of openness, a respite from the claustrophobia that comes with living in a city with eight million people.

Now you need a timed pass to gain entry. Ever creative, the high line’s planners wanted to connect two parts of the park and came up with the cool notion of installing wood into the cement and steel canyons.

I went to find the Timber Bridge just before it opened and found I could not get within striking distance in a car. The bridge looms over an entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel, and there is no parking to be had for all the surrounding blocks and blocks.

So I double-parked and set out to inspect the behemoth.

For the actual timber, the High Line went with Alaskan yellow cedar. That particular wood is not cedar per se but a member of the cypress family, called cedar only because it resembles that other species in its durability and versatility for outdoor use. Cedar, like oak, hardly shrinks, swells, warps or decays, even when the weather presents severe conditions. It is also a porous material, which gives it the ability to absorb sound and offer some natural noise insulation. The wood used to build the Timber Bridge, say the people in charge at the High Line, was sustainably farmed on the rainy coastlines of the Pacific Northwest.

Cupressus nootkatensis has long been culturally important to Native people there, who employ it to craft small vessels and utensils, including canoe paddles and baskets, masks and bows, as well as in the manufacture of thread to weave clothing and blankets. In Tlingit culture one important myth describes how a Nootka cypress was used to carve the world’s first killer whale.

The tree thrives in the region as well as in parts of western Canada, at higher elevations cohabiting with mountain hemlock and amabilis fir. Yellow cedar can reach one thousand years of age, and some trees may be as old as three thousand years. One well-known specimen in British Columbia’s Caren Range, long noted for its ancient forests, is estimated to be 1,834 years old. Considered one of the finest timber trees in the world, yellow cedar was exported to China in quantity during the last century. The wood has been used for flooring, interior finish and shipbuilding. The tree’s heartwood also has qualities that make it one of the most desired sources of firewood on the West Coast, it burns so hot and lasts so long as embers; a cut tree can still be used for firewood up to one hundred years after its death.

Forest-wide conservation strategies for yellow cedar are being developed to take climate change into account. The species is not currently listed as endangered and has been cited by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as being one of least concern. Still, the giants have in many areas died recently in large numbers, arousing scientists’ interest. Ben Gaglioti, a University of Alaska Fairbanks professor at the school’s Water and Environmental Research Center, has been looking into why more sixty-five percent of Alaska yellow cedars, on more than one-half million acres in Southeast Alaska, have died over the last few decades. He has concluded that the biological explanation “is simple and impossible to contradict: warmer winter temperatures melt snow cover from the sensitive roots of trees, exposing them to cold air.” So, as its native locales experience less snow, scientists have been working to create a comprehensive management strategy.

In May 2023, the Timber Bridge was craned into place above Dyer Avenue, marking a major milestone in the construction of the High Line costing fifty million dollars, and called the Moynihan Connector.

Its form was created by something called glulam wood engineering. It’s made up of 163 glulaminated wood beams that journeyed from British Columbia to Manhattan, where they were painstakingly fastened together at street level in April 2023. The finished sections—two hundred-sixty feet long, fully 256,704 pounds of material—were craned into place to form the bridge, completing a continuous path from the High Line’s Spur to Magnolia Court at Manhattan West Plaza, part of New York’s new Hudson Yards complex. The highly compressed wood layers sequester carbon, and construction of the beams release far less greenhouse emissions than a steel alternative.

I sat in my car across the street from the stairs leading up to the High Line where the Bridge had been installed. A fancy new apartment building called the Eugene stands adjoining the structure.

Eugene, I considered, remembering Alaskan yellow cedar’s origins in the Northwest U.S., like Eugene, in Oregon? I thought again, Or Eugene Debs, remembering the socialist union organizer of the early 1900s. A joke. I don’t believe Eugene Debs would have approved of the luxuries offered by this apartment building: its 690 “homes,” including a studio penthouse with a monthly rent starting at $4,470, its two-story climbing wall and regulation-size basketball court, its lending library and pet grooming station, the golf simulator, the billiard room, the piano and poker lounge and a well-stocked gaming arcade. Nor, I suspect, would Debs have favored the stringent rules for Magnolia Court, at the mouth of the new Timber Bridge.

City planners appeared to be successful. I found the plaza to be both lovely and perfectly empty. No sleeping bags in evidence.

I also found the door to the new Bridge well locked.

I was a bit disappointed, having wanted to stroll along the span. On the other hand, I love to visit almost anyplace just before some big environmental occurrence. Recently I spent time in Yosemite only the day before massive springtime flooding from snowmelt forced the park to shut down. And I prefer going to Jones Beach on eastern Long Island well before the season ramps up at Memorial Day, well before bathing-suit weather, when the weather is still frigid, before the mob converges and a person can think clearly. Now I was lucky enough to get to this site before the Timber Bridge officially opened to visitors. It was spooky and wonderful to view it privately, closed up and so far devoid of human presence, even if I could not physically transverse its golden planks. I was able to get a good look at the grain of the wood, the personality of the knot holes, the laminate joints with which it was created.

The Bridge struts its stuff over a two-block street I’d never even heard of before, Dyer Avenue – and I like to think I’ve heard just about every street name in Manhattan. It seems that the only function of Dyer at the moment, in addition to allowing drivers on and off the road to the Lincoln Tunnel, is to lie quietly in the new shade of the Timber Bridge.

A hundred years ago, long before the High Line, Tenth Avenue was known as Death Avenue. At the turn of the twentieth century, trains heading along the thoroughfare’s rails struck and killed so many pedestrians that real live cowboys were employed to warn people away from the tracks.

Photos show the men waving red bandanas as a visual aid. Once the danger was averted with the decision to elevate the tracks, provisions made the transit from out of town all the way south to Gansevoort Street, passing directly through some buildings along the way and winding up at the warren of warehouses that made up the meat market. Trains stopped running with the rise of trucking, ending in the 1980s. When I first lived in downtown Manhattan during that decade I remember seeing beef carcasses hung in open bays on Fourteenth Street, now the chi-chi locale of designer clothing stores and art galleries but then featuring cobblestones slick with blood and lard.

When the tracks fell into ruin, they lay above and therefore outside the ken of law enforcement, playing host to junkies and hookers, needles and condoms.

It was a mysterious place to visit, I recall, weedy and wild. Finally a coalition was formed of visionaries who wagered that the High Line could have yet another life. Looking beyond the weeds and trash, they found themselves inspired by the awareness that the railbed had become host to a veritable meadow in its years of disuse.

The High Line Park opened to visitors in 2009. Today there is little sense of its sordid years or its commercial past, with the exception of the evocative iron rails that run its length.

The park’s gardening team has created an urban oasis that changes with the seasons, including healthy trees that are maturing nicely with each year that goes by, and offers breathtaking views in all directions over its railings.

There is plenty of art to see along the way, too. Recently, sculptor Pamela Rosenkranz’s “Old Tree” has taken root, one in a rotating series of monumental commissions.

Its fluorescent-pink hue is supposed to represent branching systems of human organs, tissue and blood vessels, while its form suggests mythical archetypes, an embodiment of the tree of life that connects heaven and earth. With no leaves, its appearance is stark rather than lush, but breathtaking as a vivid, outsize tree, its branches aflame against the backdrop of the grey/brown/black metropolis.

An actual tree known for its scarlet bark and beautiful display when it drops its leaves in winter is the Siberian dogwood, Cornus alba. Not sure whether Rosenkranz had the species in mind.

Many ages before Rosenkranz’s artistic arboreal depiction, or the High Line’s demise forty years ago, or its rich commercial incarnation one hundred years past, at the start of the 1600s this stretch of Manhattan shoreline was of course quite different in character. The lands along what the Indigenous people called Mahicantuck or “the river that flows two ways” were so densely forested that a European trader would risk potential self-destruction on a treacherous ocean voyage to reward himself with copious amounts of wood.

The early Europeans on Manhattan were not, of course, coming in quest of Alaskan yellow cedar, though they probably would have eagerly chased it down had it grown in northeastern America. Pine, oak, chestnut and ash were more their passion. And they enjoyed a bonanza. When the Dutch West India Company settled New Amsterdam in 1624, the island of Manhattan was eighty percent forested, with as many as several million trees that covered 10,000 plus acres of its then-total 13,000 acres. What remains today is several paltry patches of no more than a few thousand trees on a hundred or so acres of forested parkland, along with street trees planted at the start of the twentieth century by city-building advocates intent upon providing the scorching summertime sidewalks with some needed cooling shade.

Much of the Island’s clearing probably took place as early as the late seventeenth century. We should not case aspersions on those who logged this terrain. In addition to providing shipbuilders with wood, lumber made it possible for settlers to heat their homes and cook their food, it was used in a more concentrated form as charcoal to provide the high-temperature fuel required for metalworking as well as brick, pottery, tile and glass making. Oil and gas would not come along until the nineteenth century. Felling trees was essential. Houses – even their chimneys – were built of wood, as were the extensive lengths of fence needed to contain cattle and crops.

Archeodendrochonologists – tree-ring scientists – have recently begun to plumb the mysteries of New York City’s virgin forests by mining information from centuries-old demolished structures, both residential and commercial buildings. It makes perfect sense. As the historic, derelict and sometimes not so derelict edifices get pulled down to construct larger, flashier ones, the wood that shored them up meets the light of day and we can learn from it.

Teams from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory have salvaged joists from, say, the 2018 demolition of the circa-1891 Terminal Warehouse in the Chelsea neighborhood – just blocks away from the High Line and its brand-new Timber Bridge. They have concluded that the myriad nineteenth and early twentieth century row homes, shops and factories framed with massive beams probably contain fully fourteen-million cubic meters of wood, the volume equivalent of 74,000 subway cars. The trees colonists used to create these buildings in many cases predated the European arrival in Manhattan. It turns out that counting rings to establish age does not apply only to trees in forests. We can see the same phenomenon with cut logs.

At the Terminal Warehouse, scientists’ inspection of the butt ends of joists twenty-two feet long, a foot wide and three inches deep reveals one hundred fifty or more annual growth rings, as clearly delineated as if they were engraved there yesterday. Based on resin content as well as patterns and colors, the timbers show themselves to be perfect specimens of the longleaf pine variety that was original to Manahatta. Most of the trees in question were felled in or before the 1890s, and all the specimens under consideration are ancient; with most originating as between the early 1600s to the mid-1700s. The oldest tree represented here as a cut beam, say the scientists, sprouted around 1512.

Developers take down or gut-renovate a thousand old structures every year in New York. Tree-ring scientist Mukund Palat Rao has said, “These forests don’t exist anymore—they’re inside the buildings. They’re being demolished at a rapid pace and getting thrown away. We’re trying to collect whatever we can.”

The Timber Bridge may be grand, might be produced from sustainable lumber, is likely  the coolest thing to happen in Hell’s Kitchen in quite some time. It is remarkable reverse engineering that has resulted in inserting the equivalent of a small forest back into the thick of tree-poor Manhattan. On the other hand, wouldn’t it be even more awesome if the Timber Bridge had been assembled from wood repurposed from those thousand buildings that are disappeared every year in New York City, the ones carrying ancient history in their heartwood?

I can’t help but think that those umbrous, weathered, time-capsule joists would be just perfect for a newfangled bridge over Dyer Avenue.