Secret Backyards of NYC

Getting exposed a new side of a city I’ve known for seven years

An example of a secret backyard in NYC that I stumbled upon during our apartment search

The Discovery

It’s the third or fourth two-bedroom duplex I’ve seen on the Upper West Side. Paul, our agent, is starting to lose patience with my pickiness, but he doesn’t show it. We’re looking at a unit that’s 69 steps up and has two beautiful bay windows that face West 76th Street.

“So…” Paul begins carefully. “Have I ruined that other place for you by showing you this one?” he asks, watching me take it all in.

“No,” I lie.

“This one, since it’s completely renovated, will be a few hundred dollars a month outside of your price range. But I can show you the unit in the back, which just sold for a little less, so you can get a better idea.”

We exit and cross the hall to the unit in the rear and now we’re inside a mirrored reality of the apartment we just saw. It’s not quite as new, but it feels cozier somehow. I instantly prefer that.

“Let me show you the roof,” Paul offers.

We mount the steps to the second level of the duplex and walk onto the terrace. I do the thing everyone does first, which is to walk over to the edge and peer over it. But this time I take a sharp inhale and gasp. I knew this wasn’t the streetside view, but it also wasn’t what I half-expected to see — a back alleyway littered with trash, a completely blocked view due to a tall building, an overlook of a dumpster that collected the building’s recyclables.

Instead I see porches and patio furniture and trees and dozens of dollhouse setups of people playing house here in the big city. And for the first time in my seven years of living in NYC, I realize something: This city has a secret backyard culture.

“Oh my god…” I trail off. “There are backyards behind these. I never knew…” I look to Paul for some explanation. Receiving none, I probe more. “Is this what’s behind all of these?”

“These” being my nondescript phrase for “walk-up buildings on the Upper West Side.” He nods and smiles.

Instantly I am jealous of all of the places he’s seen, the hidden gems he must know about on the Upper West Side through his 30+ years as a real estate agent. I snap a picture, then another. He’s trying to show me the rest of the apartment but I can’t tear my eyes away. It’s as though a whole new world has opened up to me. In all of these years, the closest I’d come to a neighborhood in NYC was the 6th floor of our previous apartment, who mostly knew me and my husband due to our cat that roamed the halls. But even that was transitory and transactional. We caught people only as they came and went into their units. Only rarely was I invited inside.

What I was looking at now, was the exact opposite — a slice through the middle of an apartment and into a shared zone of relaxation and contentment. With each patio, the neighbors below staked their small claim on coveted outdoor space like beach cabanas along the shore. Individually, each unit was an enclosed ecosystem. Collectively, it felt, for the first time, like a true neighborhood.

That’s the moment I decided that we couldn’t possibly leave Manhattan for Brooklyn.


The Arrival

Three weeks later, it’s our first night in our new apartment. After scouting every two-bedroom duplex on the Upper West Side, I finally found one within our price range. It’s 72 steps up from the street, then another 18 to the top. But it’s worth it.

Looking out the window across the way, we spy a family sitting down together for dinner, a girl on crutches playing in the living room with her brother, a woman walking around in her underwear cradling her dog to the chest, a man on his porch alone, listening to the baseball game as he eats dinner in the dark.

We can see all of this from our newly acquired vantage point on the terrace — offering us equal parts privacy and exposure as everyone else. For the first time, I am privy to a sudden secret life of NYC, something that very few who pass by the busy street intersection outside will ever have a chance to enjoy.

Multiple levels of terraces and greenery to look at from above

It’s something you never would expect on a busy street squarely in the midst of bustling Manhattan. But ever since that first eye-opening apartment search, I’ve been craving this, and now we have it — a peek into a window of dozens of families who, just like you, spend their days running around in a frenzy, but spend their mornings and evenings enjoying the quiet reverie of a rare private outdoor moment in the city.

We see grills and potted plants. Dining room tables and sun bathers. Our terrace neighbors to the left inherited a fully manicured faux lawn from the previous tenants, and our neighbors to the right, like us, are newbies.

“Hi, I’m Bethany,” I offer, arching myself around the edge of the fence for a handshake. “My husband and I have been here for four days.”

“I’m John,” he responds. “We just moved in too. My wife and I have been here for eight days.” His British accent gives away that they moved across the world for this backyard view. I’m both jealous and impressed that they somehow nestled their way into this neighborhood on their first go at a NYC apartment.

We spend the rest of the conversation in silence, each quietly observing our new perches, ninety-six steps above street level.


In the morning on day five, I am awakened by an unexpected sound — a bird cawing. Not the sound of a pigeon cooing melodramatically on my air conditioning unit outside of my bedroom window. (That one I’ve seen before.) But an actual CAW! that you might expect to hear while taking a stroll through your neighborhood park in the suburbs. It’s 30 minutes before my alarm is set to go off (5:30 a.m.) but I’m not upset by the interruption.

Instead, I tiptoe out of bed, take a shower, and head outdoors. Soon I recognize that there are birds of all chirping varietals in our new backyard. Robins and cardinals and blue jays and a few others that I can’t yet name. We hear trills and chirps and coos and whistles at all times of the day now.

This is because, in addition to porches and backyards, there is green. We can see ivy lining the rear brick wall of the unit across the way, several budding trees planted (likely decades ago) in backyard ground garden units, and we see flower beds, shrubs, window sills lined with pink blooms. This must be what makes the birds happy. They too have found sanctuary amidst the traffic. This must be where the birds sleep at night.


The Connection

On day 14, I come home after the longest day of my year (at around 2 a.m.) and despite my fatigue, I immediately head upstairs. I pull aside the screen door, sit on the open terrace, fresh from the evening rain. I take a deep breath, sigh out loud, and look up.

And I see stars in New York City.

I’d spent my first two weeks looking out — at the houses, the people, the windows, and the lights across the way. But until then I’d never bothered to look up. It’s a clear night, and I can just make out the Big Dipper. For the next 20 minutes, I enjoy the silence and the moonlight all to myself.

The following day, the day after our crazy work week, I am a slight shell of a human and had decided upon a book and a bottle of Chardonnay with pasta for dinner. With the window open, as I’m wrapping up my meal, I think I can just about overhear the sound of a few guitar strums from the roof deck above.

I pour myself a full glass and head upstairs with my book. There, my other next-door neighbor, JD, is sitting outside by himself with a guitar. His wife is out of town, he says. So is my husband, I reply.

We make small talk for a few minutes. His dogs eye my cat suspiciously. She returns the glare. Nobody gets hurt.

I stand for awhile, lingering against the railing as we cover a lot of the basics — where we’re from, how long ago we’d each moved, what we do for work — and soon it becomes clear that neither of us wants to vacate our position. I sit down to enjoy my wine, still chatting. My cat joins on my lap.

Perhaps my favorite new part of backyard life…morning coffee time with the cat

We talk about our New York existence, our favorite neighborhood spots, the wake-up times of our respective partners. We compare building nuances. (Their duplex has more corners.) I tell him my parents are coming in town this weekend. He volunteers to help me carry supplies up the 72 steps to our apartment. In the end, as the sun sets, we exchange numbers and part ways.

It’s amazing how much easier it is to get to know your neighbors when you just have a place to sit together.

And in essence, this is (in short) the story of the past month. Of discovering, of arriving, and of connecting — for even after seven years of knowing a place, I’m learning that NYC will always continue to surprise you.