On Gansevoort Street, at the southern end of the park, the new Whitney Museum of American Art is slowly taking form, shedding its temporary external panels every few weeks to reveal expansive windows that promise abundant light and stunning Hudson River views. At the northern end, a whole new city is rising around the Rail Yards. The future headquarters of Coach is a work-in-progress that’s already looming over the park and eventually will straddle it, creating a tunnel along the spur at 30th Street. In between these two anchors — one cultural, one commercial — and on both sides of the High Line, construction sites abound: business and residential, retail and dining, even transportation: the new No. 7 line will have an entrance just under the park.
Every corner of the High Line these days is like the mezzanine of a good theater, and no matter where you go, you’ll encounter the sights, sounds, smells and vibrations of real estate development unfolding. It’s the oldest story in the New York City book.
But the High Line itself is about to undergo a big change: the annual, volunteer-powered haircut known as the Spring Cutback. This is one of my favorites moments of the year, and this is the week to prepare yourself — to get the Before so you can really appreciate the After.
Walk through the park over the next few days and study the horticulture: the dying, stalky, crusted remains of last year’s blooms; the weeping, bleached grasses that are still encased in snow and ice. Beginning next week, an army of volunteers — the hearty High Liners, people of all ages and from every neighborhood around the city — will put on little blue pinnies and pick up a pair shears. By early April the park will be utterly transformed, and for a couple of months — until the flourishing grasses and plants burst from their ballast-strewn rail beds — you will see the the infrastructure of the old railroad emerge from the messy, cluttered garden.
Cutback is always the time we remember that this place was once a working railroad. As the plants are trimmed and the rails revealed, you can even see the names of the old lines stamped into the steel: Bethlehem, Baltimore & Ohio, Lackawanna. But today it’s still a winter garden, and in all its splendid disorder it beautifully expresses Piet Oudolf’s fascination with the structure, color, texture and shape of plants and grasses as they pass through the cold months.
If you are intrigued by the notion of watching change happen, walking along the High Line over the next few weeks will give you a glorious front row seat.