The Rooftop is a Haven for Mischief
March 6, 2020 1:26 PM   Subscribe

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. Ode to Rooftops by Jessi Jezewska Stevens
posted by chavenet (12 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Our area has so many roof decks that it isn't really private at all. But it is still nice.
posted by grumpybear69 at 2:04 PM on March 6 [1 favorite]

In principle, this is a familiar story, and a thesis I very much agree with. Escaping public scrutiny is a key thing, right alongside public trangression. But in every city I've been, including New York, there are a multitude of uncategorised, untended places. Under bridges, in loading bays and weird niches of office complexes. In residential areas there are usually empty lots of one sort or another, car parks with overgrown edges and corners. These are the places that democracy and civic mindedness survive, if that's what's wanted. It's how the Commons function in a lot of places. Not the hierarchical and rigid Houses of Commons, but the multi-use egalitarian space made by and for peasants.

Maybe NYC is exceptional in the rigid control of space. But London, Berlin, Copenhagen, Bologna, Bratislava, Bruges, Nice, Prague all have acres of places, little pockets and huge swathes, where people go to create some self-nurturing common space. So rooftops, yes, but also lots of other places.
posted by rustipi at 2:08 PM on March 6 [6 favorites]

There's something very provincial about this sub-genre of articles that try to use some trivial, but New Yorky, activity to show that living in NY is the most revolutionary act a human being can perform.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 2:13 PM on March 6 [7 favorites]

Here's another clip that goes well with the one above.

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.

I have lots of roof stories -- I bet many of us do. My left ankle pops when I roll it, stiffens when there's a chill, a callback to my earliest roof story and one of my oldest memories. Jump, they said. It's fun. I did and it was fun and I did it again and again with the rest up onto the roof and out to the edge and pushing off over the rain gutter and falling onto the backyard lawn until the last one when it all went wrong for my ankle.
posted by notyou at 2:27 PM on March 6 [3 favorites]

Up on the Roof - the Drifters, 1962 (written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King)
posted by Iris Gambol at 2:42 PM on March 6 [7 favorites]

Hmm, was I neglecting my opportunities when living in shabbier housing to swim in the laundry, or hand-wash bras in the rec room?
posted by praemunire at 3:27 PM on March 6 [2 favorites]

Plenty of delight and music on our roof! Also: smashburgers.
posted by grumpybear69 at 4:43 PM on March 6 [1 favorite]

"The sidewalk cracks, gumspots, the water, the bits of refuse,
They reach out and bloom under arclight, neonlight—
Luck has uncovered this bloom as a by-produce
Having flowered too out behind the frightful stars of night."

-Edwin Denby.
posted by clavdivs at 7:52 PM on March 6 [2 favorites]

These are people who are starved for the outside and the roof is what they've got. Me, I've got some grass but I'm more interested in the weeds and the bugs. It's what I've got...
posted by jim in austin at 8:08 PM on March 6 [2 favorites]

bugs are deeply multifarious
posted by away for regrooving at 11:40 PM on March 6 [4 favorites]

Edwin Denby

There is no lip on that roof! It is just like over and done, madness!
posted by Literaryhero at 11:45 PM on March 6 [2 favorites]

This is really nice.

I've tried to find the densest places in every city I've lived in since I was old enough to make such choices, but I've never actually encountered a truly neutral rooftop. I try the doors on every stair in pretty much every buildings I've slept in, but they're nearly all been not just locked but very thoroughly locked and covered by a security system. My rooftop experiences have always involved sneaking around, risking arrest, and constantly being on guard in unfamiliar places. It's adventure, rather than respite. But, I've never lived in NYC or in a place with a proper window fire escape, so perhaps I've just missed out on the relaxing version of a rooftop. (At least we've got alleys.)

I suppose the exceptions are the roofs of academic buildings, which I've had keys to on several occasions. But, you're still "at work" and trying to look professional, even if you're eating a sandwich and watching the sunset. It's not quite the same.

These days I have less time and far fewer friends who pass on accessible rooftop information, so I make do with the boughie rooftops that sell $17 cocktails. I'm not convinced those were ever going to be the same rooftops.
posted by eotvos at 12:43 PM on March 7 [1 favorite]

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