City in the Sky: The Secret World of NYC Rooftops

The average New Yorker doesn’t give much thought to what goes on above the frenzied city streets: peering up, distant rooftops reveal occasional tufts of green, bits and pieces of illegible neon murals, sagging, archaic water towers, rain-warped gargoyles and elaborate façades. Separate, shrouded, and private, they are seemingly disconnected from the chaos below. But recently, New York City rooftops have formed a vibrant, budding metropolis of their own; activists, artists and entrepreneurs are rapidly transforming the once bleak and dangerous spaces into restaurants, gardens, clubs, farms and even vineyards.

Rooftops have long been used as urban backyard and communal sanctuaries to under-age city-dwellers, sunbathers and gardeners alike. Previously, access was not favored by landlords or wary neighbors, and therefore kept relatively hush-hush.

An old-school, unfurbished roof

Now, in expensive, developing neighborhoods like Chelsea, the Lower East Side and Williamsburg, high rises hover over older buildings, promising private roofs with perfect views, heated pools, gyms, and spas overlooking the city. Exclusive rooftop clubs and bars are most popular; many remain “secret” but some can be found in rooftop-drinking guides.

A roof restaurant (Photo by HotelChatter)

Although newer residential buildings and businesses have begun expanding upwards, construction on older sites can be problematic, mainly due to The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, which is responsible for preserving collections of historically and/or architecturally significant places due to a “special character…historical or aesthetic interest or value.” According to NYC.gov, the Commission has designated more than 23,000 buildings in all five boroughs since its creation in 1965 and is authorized to approve or deny permission for changes to entire historic districts of the city.

A tenement next to a newer building (still under construction)

Still, requests to build on landmarked sites is a messy process, and the legalities surrounding residential rooftop access remain murky. Because they’re more public than apartments but more private than street-level spaces, it is difficult for tenants to gage appropriate roof etiquette. For instance, even though it is strictly prohibited by the NYC Building Code, landlords often lock roof doors in order to prevent noisy public gatherings. When it comes to barbequing on roofs, the NYFD warns against using propane barbecue grills, as it is “both dangerous and illegal.” However, “charcoal barbecue grills are allowed if “there is an immediate source of water” at hand.

A very illegal roof BBQ

Business owners tend to get into the most trouble: In 2007 the city sued owners of a Greenwich Village sushi restaurant for $500,000 for un-authorized construction on their rooftop. Some businesses, like Amy Ruth’s Restaurant on 113 West 116th Street, have started secretly harvesting their own “rooftop honey” despite the fact that raising live bees is illegal under the New York City Health Code (and met with a $2000 fine).

A roof garden in Brooklyn (photo from Mcorreia.com)

A 6,000 square foot organic roof farm! (From http://www.psfk.com)

But developers aren’t the only ones taking advantage of New York’s 944 million square feet of rooftops. The green movement has caught on too, and over the past fours years individuals and companies have begun transforming the urban landscape, planting gardens and trees on top of buildings in order to keep the city cool in the summer, insulate structures in the winter, and prevent storm-water from overwhelming drains.

According to a recent New York Times article, Governor David A. Patterson approved tax abatements in 2008, ensuring that building owners with green roofs receive a significant tax credit which can ultimately save New York City residents more than $5 million in energy cooling costs. Since then, Brooklyn and Queens have become home to large above-ground farms like the 12,000 square foot Gotham Greens, which is expected to produce 30 tons of vegetables and herbs by next year. The Urban Green Council hopes that green roofs will eventually beautify the city, cut greenhouse gas emissions, and create cities that “coexist in harmony with their natural environment and contribute to the health and well-being of all.”

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