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When people in West Chelsea think about railroads these days they usually think about the High Line, that famous “park in the sky” built atop the New York Central Railroad’s old freight viaduct. But last summer an artifact of another railroad came to West 22nd Street, and it’s worth stepping off the High Line to see it in person.


Historic bridge plaque from the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway

This plaque, which now graces the exterior wall of sculptor Silas Seandel’s studio at 551 W. 22nd Street, traveled across the ocean from England, where it once adorned the side of a railway bridge. According to the National Railway Museum in York, the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway (LB & SCR) existed from 1845 – 1922, operating services from London to the south coast of England. The Museum was unable to confirm which bridge Silas’ plaque came from, but since the main bridges of the LB & SCR spanned the River Thames in London, they speculate his may have come from one of those bridges. Railways in England only used plaques like these on important bridges, so they are rare. Particularly in America.

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Meanwhile, back at the cutback…

Looking north from 18th Street

What a way to spend a morning. Or a lunch hour (which, in New York, is two hours minimum). If you’re still at your desk on these beautiful, crisp and occasionally downright hot days, you’re missing something great: working with clippers on the High Line.

Just about every day dozens of volunteers are out there, cutting back the grasses and dead stalks that are Piet Oudolf’s signature. Oudolf, the Dutch planstman who designed the park’s horticultural plan, once famously told a reporter that “brown is a color.” Here on the High Line, unlike so many other gardens around the world, the plants are left alone during the winter, and they present an always interesting landscape of different shapes and textures: spiky, smooth, straight, twisted, standing at attention, weeping in a corner. There’s lots of brown for sure, but also other colors: blazing yellow witch hazel, pale green Corsican hellebore, silver leaves on little bluestem grass, red berries on holly trees.

In Spring, the whole place gets a haircut, and it takes a village. It’s a wonderful way to pass a few hours: clipping, hauling, scraping, cleaning. Unlike that meeting you just attended where everybody jawboned and nothing really happened, you can watch your progress as you go: whole swaths get cleared away and suddenly, with the dead matter gone, the rails stand out as clear as day.

Lackawanna 1926, Chelsea Grasslands

Every year the Spring Cutback is the most vivid reminder we have that the High Line was once a working railroad. When I was there on Monday, clipping and clearing around a set of old tracks in the Chelsea Grasslands, I was reminded of how Isabel Church, wife of the landscape painter Frederic Church, called the Catskills “the shy mountains” because they were so often hidden by clouds and invisible to the many visitors that the Church’s received. Here in Manhattan we have the shy rails. Over the course of the year, beginning in spring, the grasses, shrubs and perennials take over, and the tracks begin to disappear under all the new growth. But today, and for the next month or so, you can see them boldly running up and down the entire extent of the park. Look closely and you’ll see the name of a railroad and year the track was manufactured stamped into the steel: LACKAWANNA OH 1926 is lurking somewhere between 18th & 20th Street.

Looking south from 20th Street

If you missed the Cutback this year, put it on your calendar for 2013. We all know about the irksome inevitability of death and taxes; the happier thing to count on is rampant, glorious, unruly plant life on the High Line. In addition to spending time working outdoors in the big city you’ll also get the chance to hang out with Friends of the High Line’s incredibly great gardening staff. They’re among of the most knowledgeable, patient, cheerful, hard-working people I’ve ever met. I know I speak for many volunteers when I say that working alongside them feels more like a privilege than a task.

After a day of the Cutback you might have an aching back, but a full heart is guaranteed.