Second Story Social Exchange

Like the rest of America, a great deal of socializing in New York occurs outdoors, with one marked difference–it’s often a few stories off the ground. If you’re like me you might’ve assumed that New York City rooftop leisure is a product of 21st century real estate development, particularly in the outer boroughs where condos surface like teenage acne. But a few of John Sloan’s works on display at the Whitney’s Modern Life exhibition illustrate that rooftop society occurred long before Dick Van Dyke danced against a faux London skyline.

Sloan’s The Haymarket, Sixth Avenue is one of many etchings documenting spaces of alternative entertainment that blossomed in the first decade of the 20th century, many of which were tucked both bellow and above the ground. At the time, City parks were considered hygienic spaces that provided opportunities for social exchange and entertainment. The natural setting alleviated urban overcrowding and addressed public reform through the co-mingling of the classes, (in other words, the working class would be inspired to adapt bourgeoisie habits and values).

Away from the public scrutiny that accompanied terrestrial social exchange, rooftops allowed for a more fluid mingling of classes–and ideas. Like tea rooms and speakeasies, the rooftop was a destination unknown to most. With the added bonus of open air and vast amount of space, roofs were perfect for balls and concerts that appealed to those who equally enjoyed cultivated and uncultivated experience.

Rooftop access has its origins in safety.  After a tenement fire in February of 1860, the City drafted its first comprehensive building code, in which “fireproof balconies on each story on the outside of the building” was “connected by fireproof stairs.” It was these fire escapes that would eventually allow the nascent summer garden party to flourish.

Everett Shinn's Revue, entertainment on a summer evening.

Rooftops also had the added entertainment of the city itself. Take for example, The Fall of the Village Bastille, Sloan’s painting depicting an inflamed women’s prison behind Jefferson Market in Greenwich Village.  Men and women watch from the elevated station on Sixth Avenue.

While bourgeoisie concert halls were places people went to be seen, the rooftops offered the unique opportunity to see but not necessarily be seen; an urban panopticon without capitalized Authority.

So what does this have to do with contemporary rooftops? My observation is that rooftops today are increasingly exclusive social affairs. When the global real estate market realized most of us were climbing onto our roofs, developers stopped worrying about whether or not BBQing on the roof was legal and started promoting New York City’s rooftops as attractive additions to otherwise lackluster housing.

I’ve spent my past three 4th of July’s on a Brooklyn rooftop. Who needs the Hudson (damn you Jersey!) when you can see the entire city ablaze just five stories high? However, last summer while straddling a giant GEOTTEL a/c unit I looked around and noticed  Brooklyn’s rooftops  populated by a singul demographic: young and decidedly middle class. It seems that with more people willing to drop an extra $100 a month on rent so they can play music and drink beer while admiring the NYC skyline, gentrification is moving into the stratosphere.


Grilling above the ground

Grilling below the ground










The City’s density does a great job masking its rampant spatial segregation. Not only are streets divided horizontally–luxury condos on one side and rent stabilized, 1960s era tenements on the other–these streets are divided vertically with low-income, often foreign-born residents relegated to a patch of concrete for all social activities. What seemed to be subversive social space during John Sloan’s time is now sterile, exclusive, and indicative of the troubling connection between real estate and segregation.


To check out:

1860 New York Acts, chap. 470, sec. 25; “Burnings–Fire Escapes,” Scientific America 18 February 1860 121.

John Sloan’s New York

Note: My critique of Brooklyn’s speculative real estate will not prevent me from enjoying my friends’ rooftop parties this summer.

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