Here in Hong Kong, rooftops are very functional, used more or less like an extra room in the house: for storage, laundry, recreation. In the past, rooftops were the cheapest places to live, and multiple families would crowd into shanties built on top of walkups and even highrises. Some of those illegal structures still remain. In March, when I visited Kwun Tong to get a new pair of glasses, I peered down from the open window of the twenty-first floor of the optometrist’s building and saw laundry hanging out to dry on the roof of a large industrial building below.
New York is another place where rooftops are put to good use. Gardens and terraces are abundant and, in Brooklyn, Rooftop Films fashions makeshift cinemas from the rooftops of old factories and other buildings. Back in 2005, Rooftop Films visited Montreal, and I attended their screening of several short films atop the TÉLUQ building at Henri-Julien and Villeneuve. Watching movies on a roof is a peculiar experience that combines the communal exuberance of an outdoor concert or film with the voyeuristic thrill of lurking about on roofs.
For a city with such an abundance of flat roofs, Montreal does remarkably little with them: there’s a smattering of roof decks, the occasional swimming pool and a handful of green roofs. For the most part, though, rooftops in Montreal were not designed to be used in any meaningful way, largely because of the city’s climate. Covered in a layer of gravel, the roofs typically slope inwards to encourage the accumulation of snow, which acts as a kind of insulation during the winter months. There isn’t much up there beyond chimneys, vents and skylights, which allow light to reach rooms with no exterior windows. What Montreal’s rooftops are particularly good for, however, is sneaking around. The iron ladders and spiral staircases of back alley fire escapes are the gateways to a secret world, a playground above the heads of unsuspecting pedestrians where quietude and surprising vistas can be found.
Last November, on a nighttime expedition to acquaint ourselves with our neighbourhood’s roofs, my friend Rossana and girlfriend Laine ended up on top of the St. Viateur Bagel Shop. It didn’t take long for us to decide that it was our favourite rooftop in Montreal: greeted by the silhouette of St. Michael’s Church, we turned around to see the even larger shadow of Mount Royal set against an amber sky. The smell of freshly baked bagels wafted up from a courtyard between the bagel shop roof and the apartment building next door.
Tags: Exploring the City, Mile End, Montreal, Rooftops, Views from Above