Ode to Rooftops


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…’ … 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. …”
The Paris Review


John Sloan, Pigeon Trainer, 1910

About 1960s: Days of Rage

Bill Davis - 1960s: Days of Rage
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