In Praise of Rooftops

by

04/19/2020

Neighborhood: East Village


I’m sitting on the roof of a walk-up on East 11th Street, staring into the large glass windows of a penthouse apartment across the street. It’s an early evening in August, the perfect time of night for idling: not late enough to make you worry that you’ve wasted the night, but since the sun’s gone down, it’s no longer oppressively humid—cooler outside than in. It’s not a nice roof, this roof, littered with junk and surfaced unevenly. I’m pretty sure we’re not allowed to be up here, since the emergency exit door is propped open with some tape. It’s summer 2018. I’ve just graduated from college, and my boyfriend, Luke—who will be  my ex in a few weeks—is sitting next to me, smoking and brooding. In the apartment across the street, I can see a family weaving in and out of view, a woman, a man, a small child. I’m looking into what I think is the master bedroom. There’s a large bed with white sheets and some nondescript furniture, barely discernible in the dim yellow light of the room. I’m pleasantly drunk from the wine we’ve brought up with us. Examining the apartment, I have the distinct feeling that I’m looking into a dollhouse, that if I wanted to I could reach out and rearrange the little figures as they move from room to room.

Luke and I have taken to visiting the roof every time I come over to the apartment he’s rented for the summer. A year and a half into dating, we have sort of run out of things to do. We argue a lot, spinning jokey conversations into nasty debates in which we pick apart each other’s behavior, circling like vultures around problems we’ve left out to rot. The themes, as Joan Didion would say, are always the same: he has always disliked my friends; I feel as if I’m more in love with him than he is with me. The roof is a neutral space. Climbing up the stairs, we leave the arguments behind in his cramped, muggy apartment and come up for fresh air outside. I watch the doll-family in the apartment across the street and try to paste our faces over the parents’, trying to envision us in the same scene, fifteen years on. The superimposition doesn’t gel. We smoke and look at the Chrysler Building, the tip of which looks sharp enough to impale yourself on.

Those were not the happiest days for me, but now I wish I could have them back. Before that summer, I had always wondered why New Yorkers seemed to like roofs so much. Why would you pay thousands of dollars more a month in rent for amenities like a rooftop deck? Why were the swanky—yet sterile and vastly overpriced—rooftop bars in Chelsea so popular? What makes a sunbaked rooftop, difficult or even illegal to access, a more desirable location for respite and tranquility than a quiet square of grass in a park?

In the chaotic aftermath of the coronavirus shutdown last month, hours spent indoors spiraled, predictably, into days. I scrolled through Instagram stories, looking for some glimmer of normalcy among the pleas for social distancing, the exhortations for handwashing. What I found were pictures some of my friends had posted from their roofs in Brooklyn, Greenwich Village, Washington Heights: buildings around them dappled in the golden light of a setting sun, their feet splayed out on towels and blankets, a book or two nearby, a bottle of wine. They seemed to be alone, observing the rules. It was strangely warm in New York those few days after the stay-at-home order was announced—a cruel prank nature was playing on us, as if a pandemic wasn’t cruel enough. What New York lacks in horizontal space, it makes up for in vertical space. For some New Yorkers, the easiest way to get out of their undersized apartments for a few minutes of fresh air—while following the new lockdown rules—was to travel upward, to take up a position above the city in one of its few unpopulated zones.

New York makes you acutely aware of your smallness through a truly dazzling variety of physical constraints and features: a swath of densely-packed buildings in every direction the eye can see; skyscrapers jutting up from the horizon; bodies crammed into subway cars, anonymous, stripped of distinctions. We’re forced to acknowledge distinctions daily, continuously carving out a place for ourselves among the faceless masses: “I do [x],” “I am a [x].” But on rooftops, we are no longer as small as we once were: we command the metropolis with our gaze. For a moment, we feel significant. Those affirmations of distinction fall by the wayside, no longer necessary as bolsters. 

On that roof two summers ago, I felt less miserable, somehow, staring at the city crawling beneath us. The sheer size of the buildings around me scrambled my understanding of things. The city appeared to me like a circuit board, exposing a vast array of networks. My failing relationship was only one of many relationships playing out behind all of those windows in all of those buildings. At the same time, I felt like I might have some control over what had begun to feel like an untenable situation. Looking into the apartment across the street both indulged my voyeuristic impulses and made me feel something approximating omnipotence.

I wonder if this feeling—of power regained—is why some of my friends ventured up to their roofs as the city around them fell quiet, as the streets cleared and the shops closed. As it turns out, there are few things that can make a person feel as powerless as the unknowable contingencies of a global pandemic—not least because few of us could have expected our lives to be reshaped so quickly and so drastically. The only thing you can really do, as an average citizen without medical training, is to stay where you are. Above the city, my friends could be alone—and could stay where they were, more or less—but also see the world at their feet. There is strength to be gained from elevating yourself, from taking up a panoramic perspective. Instead of bending to the world, the world bends to you, offers itself up for consumption. You develop a kind of intimacy with the small figures you might be able to spy in nearby buildings. Usually, you’re too far away to really make out what they’re doing, and so they remain a vague but reassuring indication of life beyond your own apartment walls, outside of your own mind. A roof, if you can get to one, might be an antidote to the helplessness and isolation that this very strange situation has bred. These feelings are not so unfamiliar to New Yorkers—a sect of people unique for their acceptance of a constant, and certain, discomfort—but the virus has heightened them.

On that day in 2018, we stayed on the roof late, until neighbors who had occupied other corners of the roof had returned to their apartments below. I can’t remember what we talked about exactly, although I do remember that I had become very interested in postmodernism. At one point I tried to give a definition of it. “It’s about the utter breakdown of meaning,” I said, gesticulating wildly. Luke nodded but said nothing in reply. The Chrysler Building, a barbed obelisk, glowed ominously in the distance. The concepts I was trying to explain bore no relevance to the scene, and so I stopped trying. Perhaps it was the alcohol, but I felt I could pluck meaning out of every sensory detail around me, from the setting sun behind the uneven barrier of the skyline to the oceanic roar of traffic below. I watched, somewhat disappointed, as the father in the apartment across the way pulled down the blinds in the bedroom. Was he noticing me, noticing him?

I don’t have a roof to go up to these days, though I wish I did. Like everyone else, venturing out into the streets makes me nervous. One of the less commented-on effects of the virus is the quiet hostility it has bred in us: we’ve begun to regard our fellows as threats, and it makes me miserable to see the fear in other people’s eyes as I walk by them at a six-foot distance.

In a different era, New Yorkers feared the coming of summer; now we can’t wait for it, the reprieve it might promise. Before the era of air conditioning, during the most brutal weeks of the summer—mid-August, in my experience—people in tenement buildings would take to their roofs to sleep. The roof was an escape, an urban retreat. Beneath the stars, they slept more peacefully, heads tilted upward to receive the benediction of a gentle breeze. My friends found temporary relief on their roofs, too. We all have to go back inside eventually, lockdown or no lockdown. Modern life means a life within walls, punctuated by transitory moments in open spaces. How affecting these moments can be, though. To be on a roof is to enjoy one of these brief yet powerfully concentrated excursions, putting one’s self not only outside of walls but above them, too. It is to be close to home but momentarily free of it; standing on a precipice but still stable; invisible as ever but commanding, through vision, an entire landscape. When the routines of everyday life have been disrupted, even contradiction can feel palliative.

***

Sara Krolewski is the incoming Stenberg Fellow in Cultural Criticism and Reporting at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. She lives in the East Village. 

 

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§ One Response to “In Praise of Rooftops”

  • Tsb says:

    Wow. Wonderful and astute. I did wish that someone up there did something obscene— you and the boyfriend or the people in the penthouse. But that is rooftop sort of wish.

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