Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Tar beach

By Michael Pollak. New York Time. Sunday, July 11, 2004.

Q. When did ''tar beach'' become part of the New York language? And is there a particular rooftop that owns the distinction of being the first so named?

A. ''Tar beach,'' as all roof rats know, is the urban alternative to the Hamptons on a hot summer day; it's as near as the flight of stairs outside the apartment door. The 1930's seem likely as a birth date, because it was around then that the suntan became fashionable for the masses. According to ''The City in Slang'' by Irving Lewis Allen, getting a tan on tar beach was often the preparation for a trip to Coney Island. ''By the 1940's,'' he wrote, ''city rooftops, those ersatz beaches, were given the fictitious place name tar beach, alluding to the black tarred and graveled rooftops.''

The earliest recorded appearance of the phrase in this newspaper was on Aug. 30, 1941, in an article about a man who was growing 12 ears of corn, tomato plants, green peas and radishes along with colorful blooms on his tenement rooftop at 137 East 33rd Street. The grower, William H. Geis, a rayon salesman, had decorated the place with bamboo screens, deck chairs and cocoa matting. ''An Eden Is Found on East Side Roof,'' the headline read.

But probably the quintessential Tar Beach is in the collection of the Guggenheim Museum. This one is a story quilt created by the artist Faith Ringgold, who later wrote a book based on the images called ''Tar Beach.'' The story is about a little girl in the Harlem of the 1930's who floats over the roof of her tenement, where her parents eat, laugh and tell stories why she and her little brother lie on a mattress, dreaming that the whole city is theirs.

Image ... Jessica Watson, left, changing songs on her iPod's speaker while suntanning with her friend, Claire Kuhn, on 10th Street in the East Village. By James Estrin. New York Times. August 4, 2007.