Ode to Rooftops


Arts & Culture

John Sloan, Sunset, West Twenty-Third Street, 1906

Jane Jacobs’s canonical 1961 treatise on city planning, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, begins with a thesis of community safety that would raise eyebrows today, in the common era of the NSA. Self-policing the streets, she argues, depends on three elements: the “clear demarcation” of public and private space; street-facing storefronts that act as “eyes upon” public throughways; and the continuous population of sidewalks. Cities, she proposes, ought to make “an asset” out of strangers.

As New York’s patron saint of neighborhood preservation, Jacobs undoubtedly had gentle intentions. She prevented a four-lane highway from razing Washington Square Park, another from dividing Lower Manhattan. Her analysis of the ways in which the design of public spaces can foster or frustrate community bonds continues to shape (and, some would argue, impede) New York housing policy and stock. But in an age of digital surveillance, this motion for keeping “eyes on the street” at all times takes on a decidedly ambivalent ring—in 2020, New Yorkers are already on camera everywhere south of Ninety-Sixth Street. These days, it feels just as urgent to ask after those sites where we might evade the stranger’s gaze. Enter the humble apartment rooftop, the canopy of city life that supports a social order all its own.

The best rooftops, to my mind, are tar platforms on which one may stake a lawn chair and a cooler of beer. I’m biased, of course—my first roommates in New York, two queer Midwestern transplants two decades my senior, held court on the roof. They were exceedingly kind to me, and so it’s likely I will always harbor affection for a stretch of tar. The roommate I saw most often was a robust woman with a penchant for floral prints. On weekend evenings, on the roof, she spilled regally over a cheap lawn chair like a kind of hanging garden, orating on city history. “See those facades?” she’d say. “The city ordained them to beautify the tenements…” Our own rooftop had a vestigial tenement-era cornice, and once a man pushed me up against it, a gesture I indulged mostly because an uninvited kiss beats a five-story drop onto the awning of a newly inaugurated IHOP. She held in contempt those tar-free ordeals leveraged to justify luxury rents. Just look at the Village! Union Square! Penthouses galore. “I blame NYU,” she said.

What heightened the mood of those evenings on the roof, aside from our vertiginous height? Every proper rooftop offers a sense of seclusion, an “eye” on the street, along with the sense that you cannot be seen, though could be; other tenants might imminently appear on your rooftop or on those nearby. It is exactly this partial escape from the gaze of Jacobs’s “natural proprietors”—the blurring of that “clear demarcation” of public and private space—that gives the rooftop its delicate promise of mischief and freedom. Also its intimation of danger: there is no community policing here, just you policing your proximity to the edge. Thus, there pervades on the rooftop a mood of celebratory misdemeanor, further aided by the fact that it is uncolonized by purpose. There’s no one thing you’re supposed to do on a roof, and, more crucially, nothing that’s technically forbidden. It is a private space exposed to public view, and yet with fluid rules of public conduct.


Edward Hopper, Untitled (rooftops), 1926


Because what, really, are the rules of the roof? How do they differ from those of the New York apartment, a privately owned space whose interior, arguably, is just as public as anywhere else? Take Hitchcock’s Rear Window, in which a wheelchair-bound man, confined to his Manhattan walk-up, surveils his neighbors through a pair of binoculars after witnessing what he believes to be a murder. Or the man who used to live above the brand name bakery on the corner of Christopher and Bleeker, who must have known that tourists ogled his half-nude progress from living room to kitchenette, especially in the evenings, when he raised the blinds and turned on the lights. In most New York apartments, someone can see in. But the rooftop and the apartment are decidedly distinct: Is there not an enormous difference between, say, masturbating in one’s private bedroom, even with the blinds open, versus in the semipublic of a roof? On the roof, if you’re caught, you’re a creep, but if not—well, you’ve rather gotten away with something. A confession, a cigarette, a frustrated scream, a song, all change their tenor when indulged in on a roof as opposed to in a living room. Who wants to see The Fiddler on Floor Two? It is the precarious perch that makes the fiddler’s scene; the reckless rooftop cancanning for which we remember Mary Poppins’s chimneysweeps. Antoine Yates, the man who famously raised a Bengal Tiger named Ming and an adult alligator named Al in his Harlem high-rise, used to bring his pets to the roof. “I did get to experience rooftops with them,” he says in the documentary film Ming of Harlem: Twenty One Storeys in the Air. “The city is quiet. That was a nice, beautiful setting … the ultimate moment. It’s like, I’m on top of the world.” There is a thrill to secrets shared on a roof. The sense that you should not be there creates an accidental bond. The sight of the city compresses the sense of public solitude; the intimacy of the roof permits the telling of secrets that otherwise might not be told at all. In Saudi director Haifaa al-Mansour’s Wadjda, the film is punctuated by a series of rooftop scenes in which a mother gently reveals to her ten-year-old daughter the challenges that lie in store for her when she grows up. It is on the roof, unveiled, that the iconoclastic Wadjda learns to ride a bike.

The rooftop is a haven for mischief. Unlegislated, it satisfies the human impulses to be in public and escape supervision at once. “Safety on the streets by surveillance and mutual policing of one another sounds grim,” Jacobs acknowledged. And it is! Even utopian communities are in need of public spaces without surveillance, where one can indulge in a little mischief and imagination; sites accommodating of misdemeanors unacceptable in the regulated public of civilized life; places to test the boundaries of the self. In rural areas, one may retreat to the mountains, the plains, the woods. That’s the beauty of rural life, the ease with which one may escape the public eye. City dwellers need this, too. Perhaps our woods, in a way, are our roofs.

Foucault described “counter-sites” like rooftops as “heterotopias,” places that are “outside of all places.” Their social role is to establish a “space of illusion that exposes every real space, all the sites inside of which human life is partitioned, as still more illusory.” He invokes as examples the honeymoon, the cemetery, the menstruation tent, the museum, which quarantine sex and death and history in “no-places,” in other-than-here places, in order to protect the greater illusions of chastity and immortality that veneer and facilitate civilized convention; they are little wormholes in the space-time fabric of daily life. By “juxtaposing several incompatible sites” at once, heterotopias transport us to places that logically shouldn’t be able to exist, but, paradoxically and phenomenologically, do. The menstruation tent and prison, for example, are “heterotopias of crises,” places to sequester human phenomena that polite society does not wish to see; the museum and the cemetery are heterotopias of time (“heterochronies”), static places that accumulate years. Perhaps the rooftop—at least the ones not yet sanitized for luxury and leisure—might be called the paradoxical heterotopia of surveillance, a space that superimposes the public and private policing of oneself. To be on a rooftop is to watch yourself through the perspective of a potential witness (can someone see you from their apartment, or yet another roof?) as well as to inhabit the power of looking out at an unsuspecting world. Wherever there are eyes—on the streets, on the internet—we perform. But on the rooftop, the audience remains abstract, without legal or physical power to intervene. One performs for possibility itself.


John Sloan, Sunday, Women Drying Their Hair, 1912.


The paradigmatic heterotopia for Foucault was a ship, “a floating piece of space, a place without a place…,” paradoxically “closed in on itself and given over to the infinity of the sea,” and which constituted, he argued, “the greatest reserve of imagination.” He might as well have meant the urban rooftop, a raft adrift in an ocean of its kind. In Balzac’s The Magic Skin, the lovesick Raphael contemplates the “undulations of a crowd of roofs, like billows in a motionless sea,” beneath which lay the “populous abysses” of common Parisian apartments. “[The roofs] suited my humor,” he says, “and organized my thoughts… we are obliged to use material terms to express the mysteries of the soul.” Émile Zola, upon moving to Paris from Aix in 1858, found himself equally transfixed by the romance of the rooftops, which rose in frozen peaks outside the window of his atelier: “It was then, from my twentieth year on, that I dreamed of writing a novel in which Paris, with its ocean of roofs, would be a principal character, something like the chorus of antique Greek tragedies.” Perhaps rooftops really are the chorus of city life, indifferent observers of the pedestrian drama. They break the fourth wall of Jane Jacobs’s street. In a landlocked and airborne world, it is the rooftop, suspended in the infinity of the skyline, that provokes the imagination and invites the private projection of a world. But what do we imagine up there, and for whom?

The multipurpose nature of the New York City rooftop was amply documented by American artist John Sloan, painter, etcher, and exponent of the Ashcan School, who devoted himself to depicting the subculture (or rather, superculture) of tenement-era rooftop life. Sloan’s canvases feature laundresses, sun bathers, lovers, dust storms and thunderstorms, nappers, women drying their hair, couples sleeping in the open humidity of a summer night. He observed all this and more from his eleventh-story Greenwich Village apartment: “Work, play, love, sorrow, vanity, the schoolgirl, the old mother, the thief, the truant, the harlot. I see them all down there without disguise.” Without disguise! The roof is private enough that one can cast aside the mask, but also public enough that Joan Sloan can observe it in painterly detail. Tenement dwellers played cards, did laundry, bathed, relaxed, cooked; the roof was as multipurpose as the cramped, one-room tenement itself—yet also an escape, a place of promise the apartment could not provide.

The rich, to be sure, wouldn’t have been caught dead in such a rooftop scene: this was the age of walk-ups, when the parlor level was sought after and upper floors were reserved for laundry, chores, the middle class, and the poor. Only recently have rooftops become the playground of the wealthy, because only fairly recently have rooftops been serviced by elevators. Much like the right to privacy itself, rooftop use has always been determined by class and ease of access. Heterotopias like rooftops “presuppose a system of opening and closing that both isolates them and makes them penetrable,” says Foucault. “To get in one must have a certain permission and make certain gestures,” and not all rooftop permissions are the same. Swanky bars on hotel roofs establish their exclusivity through rituals of money—the marble lobby, the bouncer at the door. The unfinished, tar-topped roof, by contrast, establishes its charm through sheer, physical inaccessibility; by signaling that the roof is not meant to be inhabited at all. Once, after a break-up, I spent a week apartment-sitting at a friend’s where accessing the roof was usually a two- or three-person job: one to spot, one to climb the rickety ladder and hold open the skylight, another to bring up the wine. I went every evening to that roof, alone, and often entertained visions of myself splayed out on the floor in the empty hall below. Had the roof been accessible by elevator or stairs, I don’t think I would have visited at all. The inaccessibility signaled precisely that it wasn’t meant to be visited, and that was its charm. Like the moon, the rooftop does not naturally support life, though one can make an expedition. If implicit in the heterotopic visit are ideas of escape—from the surveillance state, from rules and social expectations—then perhaps we ought to be most interested here in rooftops that are not meant to be comfortable, and so offer an indifferent invitation to invent, in private, in public, a new use of space. It’s here, on this kind of roof, that one feels most free: once you break the rule of entry, there is no other regulation to acknowledge or obey.


John Sloan, Pigeon Trainer, 1910


In literature, rooftops tend to attract children and itinerants who scramble upward to escape the tyranny of supervision. In Zola’s Belly of Paris—the novel inspired by that ocean of roofs outside his window—two street urchins, Marjolin and Cadine, leap between the gutters and cornices, making picnics of delicacies stolen from Les Halles. In The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Anderson, Kai and Gerda live in buildings with adjoining roofs, and in the high window boxes establish a queen-conquering bond. And is there any better ode to the imaginative freedom of the rooftop than Roberto Bolaño’s The Spirit of Science Fiction, set in Mexico City, where rooftops were, historically, the domain of servants? It is in one of these makeshift rooms that Bolaño’s seventeen-year-old poet sits on a yellowed mattress, writing inane letters to Ursula K. Le Guin. “I was born in Chile,” he writes, “but now I live on a rooftop in Mexico City, with views of incredible sunrises….The showers are cold-water, except for one, which has a boiler that runs on sawdust—it belongs to the mother of four and has a lock.” In Philip Roth’s “The Conversion of the Jews,” an overly inquisitive Hebrew school student flees to the roof after calling his rabbi a bastard. The better part of the story takes place up here, as Ozzie Freeman evades the anxious attempts of community elders, the fire department, his mother, to coax him down to earth and spare the congregation considerable embarrassment. “So far it wasn’t-so-bad-for-the-Jews,” the narrator says, “But the boy had to come down immediately, before anybody saw.” Onlookers encourage him to leap into the fireman’s net, but Ozzie’s power grows the longer he holds out: “Being on the roof, it turned out, was a serious thing… [he] wished he could rip open the sky, plunge his hands through, and pull out the sun; and on the sun, like a coin, would be stamped JUMP or DON’T JUMP.” He makes the entire temple pledge allegiance to Jesus Christ before he acquiesces; escaping to the roof, in a way, makes him more powerful than the rabbi. For children, rooftops are an opportunity to turn the tables. They symbolize power, freedom, an open space for mischief, a chance to reverse the hierarchy of who sets the rules.

The more expensive and well maintained the roof, the more the roof is sterilized, reduced from a heterotopic space to a single-purpose venue among many, zoned for leisure. The zoned roof makes exhausting demands: Enjoy yourself. Enjoy your view. And this imperative implies a presence, an authority, a sense that you are being watched by an anonymous official who leaves his traces in the rules of use: No music. No smoking. No unaccompanied guests. By compartmentalizing life into neat rectangles (gym, pool, rec room, laundry), luxury living sets a predictable trap: one no longer has the opportunity to escape from purpose, for every space and object has its use. Life, fully groomed for convenience—and, one might add, for “best practice”—loses imagination, and therefore delight.

After Iran’s contested presidential election of 2009, demonstrators took to the rooftops to protest Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s victory, secured, allegedly, through vote rigging. As Iranian American journalist Borzou Daragahi wrote in the Los Angeles Times that in the protests that followed, until “10 P.M. arrives, there is nary a sound except for the wind brushing against the drapes. But then the silhouettes begin to emerge [on the roofs], lithe teens and potbellied men. ‘Allahu akbar!’ the two young women cry out across the rooftops. Another voice joins in, and then another, and then another, building to a crescendo.” The practice of rooftop chanting harkens back to the Iranian Revolution, when military curfew prevailed from 6 P.M. to 6 A.M. in an effort to quash public dissidence against the Shah: “It was a way to reassure others that they weren’t alone in feeling wronged and enraged,” Daragahi writes. Minoo Moallem, professor of gender studies at University of California, Berkeley, echoes this sentiment: “After the announcement of curfew, word circulated that every night at midnight everyone should turn off the lights, go to the roof, and shout “God is great!” (Allah-o Akbar!) as a protest against military rule… The roof (bam, or pohstebam) found a new function as a liminal urban space, neither public nor private.” In a nation under lockdown, it was one of the only remaining spaces that could accommodate a public protest, because it was just private enough to escape military rule.


John Sloan, The City from Greenwich Village, 1922


In today’s New York, even the ostensibly free rooftops, like the rooftop garden at the Met, increasingly revolve around the $17 cocktail. The same trend—loftiness equals elite equals money—can be found from Tokyo to London to Paris. The rich have already, have always, reserved their mandate for special exceptions from the rules. What need have they for roofs? And what happens, I wonder, when, like the right to privacy, the right to mischief becomes an exclusively class-based asset. Who can circumvent surveillance, claim space? Who can afford to stand outdoors and feel alone? What happens when surveillance of the public colonizes the sky?

One doesn’t like to think of a world that has lost access to its roofs, that last frontier for escaping rules increasingly written by the rich, and enforced by right-wing governments. I remember those evenings with my two roommates, listening to stories of a city below that, the way they told it, had already ceased to exist. They looked at me, a recent grad—I was the problem, and yet there I was, indelible, up there with them. This transfer of knowledge could have taken place nowhere but that roof. “Hey, you!” one felt emboldened to shout at the IHOP just downstairs. On a humid night, deranged, you looked over the cornice and felt that you could float. I’ve fallen out of touch with that feeling now, though I think the IHOP, and the roof above it, are still there.


Jessi Jezewska Stevens is a writer and itinerant freelancer. Her debut novel, The Exhibition of Persephone Q, is out this week from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. She has published two stories in The Paris ReviewHoneymoon” and “The Party.”