The roof sunbathers of New York’s tar beaches

Lying out to work on your tan just isn’t fashionable anymore. But sunbathers glistening with baby oil were once a ubiquitous summer sight on the city’s tar beaches.

Tar beaches? That was the nickname New Yorkers gave the tarry black tenement or apartment house rooftop. Tenants would drag up a chair or blanket, maybe a book, radio or Walkman, and a cold drink, then pick a spot in the sun and happily bake themselves while taking a break from the crowds and noise many stories below.

Up on a usually empty roof, there was the illusion of privacy. Of course anyone living above you could see you. But in an era before smartphone cameras and social media, it hardly mattered if curious neighbors stared.

“As long as there have been sun worshipers in search of the perfect tan in the city, there has been the tar beach,” stated a New York Times article from 2007, mourning the passing of rooftop sunbathing as a popular alternative to a day at the shore.

“Roofs have long been the urbanites’ slightly hotter, slightly gooier answer to the backyard pools and lawns of the suburbs—like private little plots without bothersome trees to throw shade.”

It’s a summer day pastime with fewer and fewer fans. Maybe roofs are barred because landlords don’t want to be liable for an accident, or perhaps New Yorkers have more cash these days to enjoy the sun on vacation out of the city.

“This time-honored summer escape is a diminished, perhaps even dying habit. This has been noted by those who have a bird’s-eye access to the city: helicopter pilots, water tank repairmen and occupants of tall buildings in otherwise low-lying neighborhoods,” concluded the Times.

[Top photo: Getty Images, 1966, Hell’s Kitchen; second photo: Tudor City, MCNY, 1943; x2010.7.2.9662; third photo: via Flying VIPs; fourth photo: Thomas Hoepker/Magnum Photos, 1983; fifth photo: Brooklyn, Ed Clark/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images via the Daily Mail]

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11 Responses to “The roof sunbathers of New York’s tar beaches”

  1. Barbara W Flanagan Says:

    People lie, not lay. Lay is transitive: One lays a book on a table. A person lies down. Copy should read: Lying out(side) to work on your tan….

  2. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Yes, thanks! You are right about lie vs lay, but I was using the term that was popular when I was growing up: teenage girls would “lay out” with their friends to get tan. It was a summer ritual.

  3. Untapped Staff Reads: Shaare Zedeks Synagogue Goes Condo, NYC’s First Modernist Residence | Untapped Cities Says:

    […] The roof sunbathers of New York’s tar beaches [Ephemeral New York ]: Laying out to work on your tan just isn’t fashionable anymore. But sunbathers glistening with baby oil were once a ubiquitous summer sight on the city’s tar beaches. Tar beaches? That was the nickname New Yorkers gave the tarry black tenement or apartment house rooftop. Tenants would drag up a chair or blanket, maybe a book, radio or Walkman, and a cold drink, then pick a spot in the sun and happily bake themselves while taking a break from the crowds and noise many stories below. […]

  4. Zoe Says:

    This is such a great summer post Phem!

    I have a tiny loft now in what was formerly only a commercial building on the CT Shore w/ — thankfully! — a small tarpaper roof (not sticky tar anymore — the black cover gets powdery). It is not the top roof of the building but rather runs along either side. I have tomato & bean plants out there now & was thinking of putting a kiddie pool out there also. (Either to plant herbs & vegetables in or fill w/ water). I wonder if one of these photos had the baby pool out of frame! (And tomato plants… & laundry drying…).

    I love the photo of the elderly women & the one crowded w/ people.

    Regarding the danger you mentioned: when I lived in a tenement on E.1rst St. a man fell off the roof into the sunken slate courtyard six floors below (five floors & sunken cellar courtyard in rear) & miraculously survived. He was very intoxicated at the time. (I’m not sure if it was a suicide attempt). Those tenement roofs without walls were quite dangerous. And of course people used them to jump from roof to roof (including to enter other buildings through the unlocked roof doors — sometimes to commit robberies).

    We had such a stellar view of the Trade Towers from the roof of that building looking South 😦

  5. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thanks for that Zoe. I know in my own building in the WV no one is allowed on the roof at all…it’s an old tenement and very risky out there, especially at night.

    • Zoe Says:

      I wonder if The NYC Fire Dept makes landlords keep those roof exit doors unlocked Ephemeral. Because I noticed that as the old wooden doors began to disappear (to be replaced w/ metal fire doors) the ones I came across on roofs were replaced w/ doors that open from the inside but not the outside (& lock you out if you forget that!).

      Honestly every neighbourhood I’ve ever lived in (wether the LES or in Brooklyn) was just prior to its gentrification — so given the landlords’ harassment and/or neglect of apartments of older tenants I’m sure they would have loved for us to have an *accident* on the roof — allowing them to rent to new tenants at higher rates. (Inc. even ignoring rent guidelines on buildings w/ more than six units).

      I’m almost surprised they didn’t invite us to parties up there & *accidently* shove us off the roof.

      • Bob Says:

        The roof door is often a legal egress in the event of fire and must be able to be opened without a key. Insurance companies do not readily accessible roofs because they do not want to pay for liability claims of people falling off roofs or throwing things off of roofs. The usual solution is a panic bar type lock on the roof door that sets off a loud alarm sound when pushed open in an emergency.

      • Zoe Says:

        Thanks Bob. I’m out of the City now in a nearby Shore town in a small loft in a commercial/residential building w/ a door to the roof in the fire stairs at both sides of the building. It’s an old building that was renovated in 1990. Now that you’ve told me of these alarms I think I won’t open those doors here! I’m in CT & not NYS so of course some of the laws are different.

  6. Tom B Says:

    We stayed on the Lexington and 50th street side of the Waldorf Astoria a few years back. Looking out our window we could see two completely naked people sunbathing on their large terrace across the street. Their building was on the SE corner of Lex & 50th. The terrace was very nicely furnished. You can see it on the Google Map. I would have to think they knew that people in the surrounding buildings could see them .

  7. oracleofeerwah Says:

    fascinating… I live out in the bush, sometimes in the winter when its sunny I go up on the roof and strip off for 5 minutes… its private.

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