Nostalgic for “Tar Beach”

An article in today’s NY Times entitled “In Tanning Circles, the Roof is Becoming History” brought back memories of rooftop activities and suntanning on “tar beach”

When I first moved to Queens, “tar beach” became my tanning hangout. The sun beat down directly on me, and it couldn’t be more convenient. After about an hour, when the tar got too hot to make it comfortable to be there any longer, I got as much color as a day by the ocean. It was especially useful at the beginning of the summer, when my legs were too white to be displayed in public. There in the privacy my building’s rooftop offered, I could get my tan started enough to feel okay about walking out onto the sand after Memorial Day. But, alas; as I prepared to get my pre-summer base layer two years later, I found the door to the roof bolted shut. I was locked out of tar beach forever.

But the rooftop offered other pleasures. I and my neighbors went up there on July 4th, to watch fireworks, or just to hang out on a hot summer evening. As a child, the roof of my building in the Sheepshead housing project had a wonderful view of Coney Island,– the Cyclone, the Parachute Jump, and of course the Fourth of July fireworks. Our apartments weren’t air-conditioned then, so we would go up on a hot summer night to cool off. Just listen to the old Drifters hit song “Up on the Roof” and you will understand what the roof meant to urban-dwellers in the pre-AC era. Indeed, my parents told me stories of growing up in Brooklyn in the 40s and 50s, when entire families would bring blankets and pillows up to the roof for huge slumber parties of neighbors escaping sweltering apartments to all sleep together. One big campout. Think of the ramifications if people did that today. One can easily argue that air-conditioning ruined the community feel of the neighborhood. In the blackout of ’03, I met neighbors I never knew when we all gathered outside my building.

Most of the building roofs are locked now for safety. The Times also mentions a new phenomenon however. The roof, which is today is often not made of tar, but concrete or metal sheeting, has become prime real estate. Some have been turned into terraces, sun-roofs, and even sectioned into extra rentable amenities, even with cabanas.

I love air-conditioning, cell phones, and computers. But I admit to waxing nostalgic for the community on the roof or the front of the building where, perched in their beachchairs, the “building yentas” reigned.

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