By Roop Gill
I grab the top bar of the wrought iron ladder. Lifting my right foot, I feel for the next step without looking down. I won’t look down. Iron rods form a semi-circle around the ladder, but I am not convinced. If I were to let go now I would fall 10 storeys to the ground below. After testing the strength of the bar, I transfer all my weight to my palms and lift my left foot one step higher. I take a deep breath.
“You won’t fall,” says J.K., a roofer who did not want his full name published for professional reasons. Roofing, in this case finding fire escapes or ladders to climb on top of roofs, is a semi-legal hobby of J.K’s.
He has already sprung up the ladder. Now he patiently waits as I snail up to the top of a red brick building on the corner of Adelaide and Widmer streets.
We are alone up here. Air conditioners, pipes and unkempt weeds cover the surface. There are different views of the city from all four corners. Adelaide Street during rush hour is cramped with one way traffic, red brake lights dotting the gray road. Fancy coffee shops line the sidewalk. A homeless person limps up a very quiet Widmer Street. The last side is blocked by apartments with glimpses of Toronto roads, cars and pedestrians peeking out in between.
I have walked these Toronto streets almost every day and perhaps even seen this antique-looking red brick building. But climbing on top of it opens up the skyline and I see that it is beautiful. I know just how far away I am from those buildings although having all of them there at once makes them feel closer. It is, as Ryerson student Andrew McGill notes, a spiritual experience.
McGill and J.K. are part of a small group of friends who seek escape from the busy downtown by rising above it. Josh MacDonald, a third-year photography student at Ryerson, said he likes the feeling of “mapping the city.” Second year arts and contemporary studies student Stefanie Block used to go on rooftops in her hometown of Ladner, B.C. and continued the adventure when she moved to Toronto. Rooftops are “uninhabitated places,” said Block, “so there is an excitement of discovering something new.”
McGill’s fascination with heights came from his time atop the 70-foot hay silo on his family’s farm just outside Glencoe, Ont., where he grew up. Seeing the country laid out before him helped him connect with something he can’t quite describe. It’s a feeling he said is similar to what he experiences when on top of a roof in Toronto.
“It’s a different perspective,” said the third-year new media student. “You don’t have a wide open space [in the city]. You’re constantly being blocked when you’re out there and it’s only when you’re on top of a roof that you see the whole breadth of the city.”
Their passion is related to psychogeography, what Shawn Micallef from Spacing magazine said is a method of breaking one’s usual routine and taking a different path to view the city.
“The change in perspective is what brings about a change in feelings towards a certain place,” he said. “Toronto, our ‘home’ as we know it, has so much to offer but we only stick to our approach. Taking a new alley or looking at a place from a different direction can bring about a dramatic shift in your knowledge of the place.”
While psychogeography is primarily about exploring open, public spaces in the city from a different angle, roofing is more closely related to urban exploration, a concept that has the same characteristics as psychogeography but deals with buildings and their interiors.
Sean Galbraith, an urban explorer and photographer, said, “When I am exploring buildings or in places I shouldn’t be in, I feel a new sense of ownership and appreciation for the place.”
Galbraith, originally an urban planner, has made a second career out of photographing abandoned buildings. “What a building looks [like] from out side doesn’t say anything about what may be its aura from inside,” he said.
J.K. and his friends have been roofing for a few years now, but psychogeography dates back to the 1950s when Marxists and radical Frenchmen started doing snail walks around the city. They travelled Paris using a map of London in order to get lost and discover something new about their city.
We don’t need a map as we cut through alleys in the entertainment district. During the walk, J.K. points out buildings he has been on and gives me tips on how to spot a good roof.
“Chinatown at night is the best,” he says. Almost every building in Chinatown is covered with graffiti, a strong indicator of roof accessibility. If someone can draw on the side of the building there is a way they got there.
“We mostly look for fire escapes and ways to climb to the top,” says J.K. He tells me he once shimmied three storeys up a yellow pipe to access a roof. But he assures me we won’t be doing the same.
We cut through a parking lot and J.K. halts in front of road construction on Pearl Street. His eyes lock onto a fire escape on the side of the building, next to the parking lot. A cop is patrolling the street. He walks away from us towards a parked police cruiser and his head disappears inside the car to talk to another officer.
We look at each other. Neither of us are sure what the officer would do if he saw us, or what we would do if we were caught. But J.K. is determined — this is a roof he has never been on before.
“I’ll go up the ladder first and see if the cops can see us,” he says as he smoothly scales the ladder and walks onto a slanted roof, which connects to a very easy-to-climb fire escape. I know I am slower so I don’t wait to follow. I’m halfway up the ladder when I get the OK from J.K., who has assessed the situation on the street.
I spread my arms to maintain my balance while walking up the slanted roof. We get to the fire escape and I feel like a six-year-old just reaching the playground. Having done this once before, I know the drill. Holding onto the railing more for emotional support than anything else, we start climbing.
The fire escape runs next to the windows of the building, and we pass them on our way up. The lights on the first floor are on and two office workers sit at their desks. We are only a passing blur as J.K. and I almost jog up. We aren’t as slick with the second floor. A blonde in a red shirt looks up from her clipboard and stares straight at us. Her gaze follows our footsteps. She thinks we are trouble.
“I think we should go back,” says J.K. “Too many people have seen us. But I am coming back here tonight.”
We go down the fire escape as quickly as my speed allows. I make sure not to look at the windows and avoid the suspicious glares of the office workers.
“Urban exploration is just a relatively new name for trespassing,” said Galbraith. “It is considered a little more illegal than jaywalking.”
So I don’t want to take the risk. We climb down the ladder and casually start walking down Pearl Street. J.K. keeps looking over his shoulder, not for the police or the office workers but at the building. “I’m coming back here tonight,” he says at least three more times during our walk to the Dundas and Church area.
We stop in front of townhouses bordering a commercial building.
“This is someone’s house, so climb softly,” he tells me. There is only one light on in the building. We climb a ladder that leads up to a sharply-angled roof. J.K. goes first and then pulls me up. I’ve gotten pretty good at dealing with the vertigo, though this roof is shorter than the others we’ve been on tonight. It takes a few seconds to get used to the steep slant but once I can walk on it, I stand on the peak and admire the church in front of me. The old architecture is in contrast with the tall buildings behind it, all looking grayishblue in the dusky, cloudy sky.
We walk along the edge of the roof to the corner and jump over to the flat rooftop next door. Moist grass covers the surface and satellites with the deep red NOW logo emblazoned on them make it the most colourful roof so far.
It’s getting darker and colder. My hands are numb from all those wet iron bars. As we are about to call it in, J.K. tells me about a building he really wants to climb.
“It’s 15 stories high and the fire escape just walks you onto the roof,” he says. “You can see the entire Yonge and Dundas Square from there.”
“Then why haven’t you gone up yet?” I ask him.
“The entrance to the fire escape is from an alley. There is a nine-foot-high door with barbed wire on top. We are going to bring a blanket, throw it over the fence, climb onto a garbage bin and get to the other side. That view will be amazing.”
“I bet,” I say. “Where is it?”