Escaping to the Rooftop

“I live in a tent on a rooftop.”

“Oh,” is all I could say. “Is that legal?”’

My Parisian friend interning here in New York City for the summer couldn’t say. He rents in NoLita for $500/month. It is a low price for the neighborhood, but a steep price for a tent.

My penchant for historical analysis led me to investigate the origins of rooftop encampment.  With some research I found that his status as a foreigner living on a roof follows a long history of immigrants on the Lower East side escaping summer heat by utilizing the real estate outside and above their apartments.

These immigrants mostly lived in overcrowded tenements, where a lack of ventilation and air conditioning led not only to uncomfortable living situations, but also spawned disease. The 1901 Report of Tenement Housing noted, “In the summer, the small bedrooms are so hot and stifling that a large part of the tenement-house population sleep on the roofs, the sidewalks, and the fire-escapes.” (1) In a 1900 court case between the New York State Tenement Housing Commission and a tenant known only as Mr. Moskowitz, there is a citation that about one-third of tenement residents sleep on the roof to escape the heat of their apartments. (2) Additionally, community activists such as Lillian Wald, founder of the Henry Street Settlement, literally went from rooftop to rooftop providing tenement residents with medical assistance, citing rooftops as a safe-haven from rampant disease. (3)

"Reading at sunset on the roof at Seward Park. This man is studying for his regents examinations while the boys and girls are deep in fairy tales." Thanks to the New York Public Library for the image and click for the source!

A lack of parks and playgrounds limited opportunities to find refuge from the sweltering apartments. In 1896, the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor through the Department of Dwellings called for the installation of more playgrounds on rooftops. (4) Hot spots in our neighborhood, such as the Seward Park Library and the Educational Alliance, built playgrounds and gardens on their rooftops in response to the decree. These spots provided summertime activities for children and families to cool off from the steamy, sticky heat filling the overpopulated streets while participating in healthy, community building activities. Congregants of the Eldridge Street Synagogue often looked to the synagogue, and particularly its cooler lower level, as a sanctuary from the heat.

My Parisian friend and his counterparts of 100 year ago both figured out how to make the best of the sweltering New York City summers. Although conditions are never ideal, rooftops at the turn of the century and in the present-day enable people to make use of the limited space available in a crowded city such as New York. When life gives you a tent in the Big Apple, pitch it on the roof.

  1. Tenement Housing Commision, 1901, pp. 540
  2. New York State Housing Commision,1900, pp. 416
  3. Jewish Women’s Archive, 2011
  4. Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, 1896, pp. 110

Thank you to intern David Schlenker for his excellent research and writing on summer rooftop practices!

Categories: History, Immigration, Lower East Side

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