Year’s End Column: A Bird’s-Eye View of ‘The Golden City’ from a Lucky Terrace

By Barbara Bonn

Several days ago, the world, as viewed from my West 80s terrace, disappeared, wiped away by a fierce snow squall that whited out the buildings of Midtown, the hills of New Jersey, the expansive sky, everything. Today it’s all back, icy and brilliant, a shining Oz. Sixteen stories up, change is constant: tomorrow’s sky may be dull and leaden, or full of low-lying fog. What doesn’t change is the sense of being of the city but not in it.

Back story: Thirty-five years ago I was living in a nice West Side apartment near the Museum of Natural History. Really nice. Good space, good light, good management. The downside: constant leaks from the terrace above, where a delightful, if dotty, lady who (in the immortal words of my landlord, whose great-aunt she happened to be) “fancied herself a farmerette.” Perish the thought of confining her greenery to pots or planters: her precious babies sank their roots into soil piled directly onto the brick terrace floor. Especially her willow trees, a species known for aggressive roots that allow nothing to get in their way. They snaked their way down into the crumbling mortar, drilled through the thick underlayment beneath the bricks, soaked through a layer of builder’s sand, and broke through my living room ceiling, carrying cascades of wet plaster and dirty water.

Many repairs later it became clear that my ceiling would have to be chopped out and reconstructed, a job that would involve months of filth and disruption. The landlord asked whether I would be interested in moving to an apartment in a similar building several blocks north. A smaller apartment, but one with a terrace at least the size of Auntie M’s. I think he used the words “poetic justice.” I looked at the apartment. It was small and schizoid. Part of it had been destroyed by fire several years earlier, and restored cheaply. The bedroom retained its 1930s hardwood floors and French door, but needed work. The bathroom was so small that the door collided with my knees. In short, uninspiring.

But the terrace. Vast and empty, facing due south toward Midtown, with bonus panoramas east and west. (New Jersey never looked so good.) Because that part of the West Eighties had recently been landmarked (Thank you, Ed Koch), the view would never be blocked. “It will never change” the landlord assured me. “I’ll take it,” I said.

But it has changed, with the seasons, with the years, as my life and I have changed. For many days after September 11, 2001, a column of ugly gray smoke chimneyed between buildings far to the south, staining the sky and our perception of it. My heart has not learned to stop jumping when I hear a plane flying at what seems to be an unusually low altitude; today’s clear, sunny sky reminds me of our vulnerability on a morning just as bright and innocent.

New buildings have sprouted up in the distance, a Stonehenge of arrogantly tall and shockingly unoriginal monoliths along Billionaire’s Row, and the dizzying triangular viewing platform that erupts from one of the Hudson Yards buildings. At night, however, they become magical, a mesmerizing skyscape of lights, my own private Broadway, no tickets needed.

My terrace has changed, too. Still vast but no longer empty, it is now home to fifty-odd planters and a population of sparrows, finches, bluejays, mockingbirds, starlings, chickadees, mourning doves and the occasional kestrel. Honeybees, too. (There are rumors of a beekeeper nearby.) It’s become not just a fair-weather extension of my apartment but a year-round haven from the scrum of the city, a template for experiencing the passing of time and the inevitability of change.

Summer is about watering, dead-heading, fertilizing, picking tomatoes and Swiss chard from the planters for dinner. Fall is about mercilessly trashing dead plants, adding compost, wrapping the fig in burlap; wearing out a broom and my aging back sweeping fallen leaves. Winter will be about sitting by the radiator and making grand plans for Spring planting from the nursery catalogues that arrive daily as I watch the birds jostle their way to the feeder ports as though it were the C train at rush hour, no matter how vile the weather.

It’s quiet up here. Not silent, though. I am between a major cross street and an avenue, so of course there are the sound of fire engines and those new Mt. Sinai ambulances. And of course there are the helicopters that circle endlessly when something – good or bad – is happening in the Park. At night, with little traffic on the streets below, there’s a constant mysterious hum that I can’t identify. A sort of middle-C murmur that fills the air. Generators? Electrical wiring? Maybe it’s the sound of the city itself, the sound that makes a night in the West 80s different from a night in suburban Westchester.

On New Year’s Eve I will throw a puffy coat over my bathrobe and go out to watch the Central Park fireworks. To remember what was lost in 2019 and what was gained. To look forward to a new decade, accepting what is without fear and anticipating what, with luck, may come.

COLUMNS, OUTDOORS | 14 comments | permalink
    1. Aud says:

      Beautifully written and so evocative. As I look at my small rooms full of as many plants as light and space allow, I felt a twinge of envy but even more so, an identification with the author. I treasure my partial view of the Hudson and a piece the sky. I feel joy for the hawk who occasionally perches on a building near my window. For these moments, I am extremely grateful. Happy New Year to you.

    2. Mark P says:

      Enjoyed your piece. Greetings from a neighbor who lives near the Museum of Natural History, with an on-and-off leaking terrace above his head. I felt the same way about low-flying planes for many years. Having lived here over 20 years in total (moved here, moved away, came back), not having a terrace, I often feel the reverse of your sentiment: in the city, but not of it. And I also enjoy the icy beauty of winter, as you put it. Fewer hours of sun, but it really punches through the eye, hanging low in the sky.

    3. mkmuws says:

      Amazing! Wise choice snapping up that opportunity. Who wouldn’t want that terrace, that special home haven within the city? Thanks for sharing, happy holidays.

    4. UWSider says:

      Why mention the Hudson Yards platform? There is no way it would be visible from your location!

    5. Miss Tap Tap says:

      Shangri-la in the sky! Thank you for your beautiful vision of New York.

    6. RS says:

      Beautifully written Barbara. I sometimes go up to my roof deck and look over at those little upward extended apartments across the way with expansive decks and dream. Planting my own vegetables, throwing circular soirees. All on the UWS.

    7. Mardi says:

      Lovely, Barbara. I do so envy you that eyrie in the sky. I am looking forward to reading more here!

    8. Josh says:

      Beautiful. Great writing, too. I too cherish my 3rd floor rear terrace overlooking the backyards, amongst the trees, birds, and summer fireflies. Wish I were higher up to see more stars and sunsets, and not have a bothersome neighbor above. Congrats on your choice, and luck.

    9. ELena Berriolo says:

      This is absolutely wonderful.

    10. P Landsman says:

      I believe the column was not smoke but a searchlight down town in the new trade center or one of the other new &tall tall downtown buildings

      • Barbara Bonn says:

        You’re right, P Landsman. To clarify, the column in the photo is this year’s “Tribute in Light,” an annual super-searchlight memorial to the victims of 9/11 and those who responded. The column of smoke I referred to rose from the ruins in the days after the attack. When the wind was right you could smell it from the UWS.
        –Barbara

    11. Kenneth Kixmoeller says:

      Thank you, Barbara! Beautifully written, and we have the privilege of being her neighbors! (Aren’t we lucky?) The world (slightly) above the city is magical, kind of stuck between the elementary agronomy of our terrace gardens and the best and less-than-best of the City.

    12. Jennifer says:

      Beautifully written!