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Notes From the Balcony

Photograph by Caroline Härdter

Room for a View

New York’s empty balconies need filling. Our writer inaugurates a new series about urban-gardening warfare and southeastern-facing frustration.

A few weekends ago in New York City, I sat for an hour in Washington Square Park. I may have looked like one of the aimless starers who occupy the benches, but I was conducting an experiment.

Around the time I moved to the city, a friend said to me, “You know what’s sad? All the empty balconies.” It was his view that the balconies of New York, particularly Manhattan, were severely underused and therefore represented the most overrated real-estate amenity in the city.

At the time I thought he was crazy, or exaggerating to make himself feel better. He had just bought a balcony-less apartment in Brooklyn.

I always assumed private outdoor space (along with perhaps a working fireplace) was the most perennially-desired feature of a city apartment. My biggest worry about moving to New York was the combination of stairs, elevator, and (possibly) doorman that would be my gauntlet to the outside. You have to be born in a Manhattan hospital, brought home by taxi to a Manhattan apartment building, not to feel this way, I think. For the rest of us, a space where one can step out unencumbered by the possibility of social contact is imperative.

Or so I thought. Nearly two years later, I concede my friend had a point. Manhattan’s balconies are a wasteland. On the day of my experiment in Washington Square, I was watching 2 Fifth Avenue, the building to the left of the Washington Square arch if you look uptown from the fountain. Twenty-eight balconies were in view (the building may have more), and in all that time on a warm spring day, I saw exactly no one. Briefly I thought I was watching a woman sitting in a white robe, but she was awfully still, and eventually I realized it was only a table umbrella still wrapped for the winter.

A naked balcony seems to me the very definition of eyesore: a fenced-in concrete slab in the sky.What is wrong with New Yorkers? Are we not part of the same nation that reveres and mythologizes the family farm? Is it so hard to grow a few tomato plants and some geraniums in the sky? There doesn’t seem to be an obvious socioeconomic division in balcony use. Fifth Avenue balconies are as underused as the ones on the projects along I-95 north of the city, as far as I can tell.

The city Parks Department hosted an event last spring in Union Square that was supposed to encourage urban gardening. I dragged the family to it, hoping to return with dirt, pots, and a few recommendations for what might grow well on a southeastern-facing balcony. No such luck. I had a nice conversation with a man who was there with his turtle. The children made tissue-paper bouquets and were given free Vitamin Water and two Parks Department action figures. Very nice, but we did not leave brimming with information about how to contribute to the greening of the city.

The experience made me wish the Green Guerillas, a nonprofit organization that works to claim abandoned bits of urban space for gardens, would do something in this realm. (I love that their name implies gardening in a city might be as tricky as establishing a foothold in a war zone.) They’ve taken over abandoned lots, filled empty medians—and now I think they should seize neglected private balcony space for the greater good. Many studies (real ones, not mine) have shown there is a link between gardens and community strength, between green space and public health. So why not?

When you have a yard, as I did for six years in Virginia, you can do nothing and still enjoy some grass and shrubs, maybe a few trees. I have written before about the difficulties of yard work, but it is very hard to neglect a yard so completely that it becomes an eyesore. Call it a meadow! A naked balcony, on the other hand, seems to me the very definition of eyesore: a fenced-in concrete slab in the sky. Yet the specter of doing something to it and ending up with a concrete slab in the sky filled with dry pots and dead plants is somehow more awful. I’ve read that the feng shui of dying plants is worse than a northern-facing front door.

But I will not be scared any longer! Full confession: I’ve spent nearly two years eyeing my empty balcony on the sixth floor of a building on Jane Street. Before the Green Guerillas come to get me, I hope to redeem myself. I’m going to stop worrying about water supply, tool storage, and fungus, and instead turn the space into… something. I may not achieve the green bowers of coziness I’ve seen in pictures, but that is not my goal. I’m not sure what my goal is, actually. I’m going to start slowly. I remember from my adventures in Virginia that pansies are hard to kill. I also remember that a good garden incorporates mystery: The views are supposed to be compelling enough to keep you walking. How that works for a five-by-15-foot space is a mystery to me.