Even when the city is impoverished, real estate in New York is at a premium simply because living stacked one on top of the other in apartments with the feel of a cozy shoebox lends itself visionary appropriation of one’s greater environment. The lack of public spaces, courtyards, and plazas have driven New Yorkers to new heights of creativity, perhaps none quite as ingenious as “tar beach,” building rooftops reimagined as semi-private playgrounds.
The ultimate escape — without leaving home — tar beach offers city dwellers the space to feel like they are king of the world as they survey the jagged landscape from new heights, their views unimpeded by buildings blotting out the sun. The indelible sensation of being transported to a veritable mountaintop does marvelous things to one’s mind, opening a magical portal into a world where anything is possible. For over a century, it has been common practice for residents to don their finest threads, ascend to the top of a six-floor walk up, and make vernacular portraits.
“Do people still go up to the roof? And if they do, what do they see? Because we saw heaven,” Martin Scorsese writes in the introduction to Tar Beach: Life on Rooftops of Little Italy 1920-1975 (Damiani). Magnum Photos member Susan Meiselas collaborated with Virginia Bynum and Angel Marinaccio, natives of Manhattan’s famed Little Italy to create a family photo album-style volume filled with photographs taken on neighborhood rooftops between the 1920s and early 1970s.
“The roof was our escape hatch and it was our sanctuary,” Scorsese continues, describing the magic of tar beach that made it an extraordinary place to celebrate one’s birthday, communion, confirmation, graduation, wedding, or simply play, picnic, and sunbathe. “The endless crowds, the filth and the grime, the constant noise, the chaos, the claustrophobia, the non-stop motion of everything…you would walk up that flight of stairs, open the door, and you were above it all. You could breathe. You could dream. You could be. The photos in this book reflect a basic need—literally, to rise above the life around you and find refuge, and peace.”
Planting Roots in an Historic Community
Meiselas has lived on the same block in Little Italy since 1974, when she first discovered an apartment for rent inside the now-landmarked Victorian Gothic building originally gifted by philanthropist John Jacob Astor III’s wife to the Italian community in the late 1890s. Like much of the city in the 1970s, the building had fallen on hard times but Meiselas wasn’t deterred. She had found a community where she could plant roots alongside neighbors who have lived there for generations.
“When I first moved here, it was very much a neighborhood: kids playing jump rope on the street, fruit sellers on the corner,” Meiselas says. “I came to know a group of girls who hung out on the corner of my street, which became the series Prince Street Girls. It was very much a family and multi-generational community.”
In its heyday, Little Italy was a village of sorts. Men gathered in small social clubs conducting business under the code of silence while kids ran the streets, living it up. Extended families took apartments in the same building, creating a profound sense of intimacy that rarely exists in big cities. The modest apartments didn’t always have running water, and if they did, it was often cold. Imagination made up for what reality lacked. Rooftops were transformed into magical spheres of influence: semi-private spaces where one could live – and document – their dreams.
A Poignant Portrait of a People and a Place
By the late 1970s, Little Italy began to change. Many residents began to move to Brooklyn, Staten Island, and New Jersey. As building ownership changed hands, a way of life that had flourished for over a century slowly came to an end. What remained of the era were stories, memories, and photographs.
In 2015, Meiselas and other residents created the Mott Street Memorial project in conjunction with the 200th anniversary of the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, the church standing at the heart of Little Italy. Knowing many of the residents would return to the neighborhood to celebrate this historic event, Meiselas set up an open call for family photographs at Cafetal, one of Little Italy’s last social clubs.
It was then that she learned of tar beach for the very first time, having never had the opportunity to visit for the roof of her building was sloped. But it wasn’t until the COVID-19 crisis that Tar Beach really took shape. Grounded in place, Meiselas focused her energies on the book, working with longtime and former residents to create a poignant portrait of the people who created one of the most legendary enclaves in New York lore.
Preserving the Pearls of the Past
In the stunning photograph of Mildred Musillo made during the summer of 1940, we see the youngest and most Americanized of the Musillo sisters sunbathing on the roof of 197 Hester Street. “She was the kind of person who aged but never got old,” the caption reads, a sentiment that resonates with a sense of inner beauty that Musillo delicately displays.
“These are presentational portraits that feel like this is a special moment,” Meiselas says, noting that film was expensive and with as few as 12 frames to a roll, one was extremely discerning about creating a moment of shared intimacy that would last a lifetime, or longer in some cases.
“The photograph is an object; it’s something you hold. I wanted people to feel the edges, the damage, the scratches — the feeling of time in the photograph was really important. It’s not just who is in the photograph and who they are hoping to become but that it becomes an object that carries on generations after and pass on to each other. It’s not only who made the photographs, but who saved the photographs and then who inherits the photographs and values them? The process of making this book was most special to me.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, and websites including Time, Vogue, Artsy, Aperture, Dazed, and Vice, among others.
Susan Meiselas: Tar Beach
Life on the Rooftops of Little Italy 1920–75
Foreword by Martin Scorsese.
Published by Damiani