Cities & Communities
Our retreat from the grid began with a last-minute e-mail: meet on a rooftop at the edge of Williamsburg, half an hour before sunset. Bring a sleeping bag and some food to share. It was signed: Thomas, Ranger at Bivouac NY.
Yet there we were, eight mostly strangers, traipsing one by one or two by two past the meat wholesalers and storage warehouses of North Brooklyn, to live like our pre-electronic forebears, without Wi-Fi or electricity, if only for one night.
“I’ve never heard of anything like it,” said Michelle Moyer, who grew up in Nebraska and hadn’t realized how much she missed the outdoors since moving to Williamsburg. Her friends were all going to Rockaway Beach for a weekend revel, she said, but she wanted something more rustic. Her cellphone battery was already dead. “Sometimes I’m very thankful when that happens,” she said.
Tiffany Wei, 26, an architect who just moved to New York from Shanghai, heard about the adventure from her friend Jamie Jimenez, 28, who saw a notice on the lifestyle tip Web site Scoutmob two weeks earlier; they both applied to participate. “This seemed so New York,” Ms. Wei said. “I just hope I brought the right food item. I brought chicken.”
The occasion, on a Friday in mid-August, was the second session this year of Bivouac New York, organized by the Brooklyn artist Thomas Stevenson. Mr. Stevenson, 43, has a soothing voice, a whitish beard, a master’s of fine arts and an affinity for Ralph Waldo Emerson — which is to say, no visible means of support.
Two years ago he was struck by all the unused space above the city, and by all the clutter — electronic, psychic, material — filling the other areas of the inhabitants’ busy lives. His solution: just unplug.
He designed a half-dozen canvas tents with wooden lean-to frames, and for a weekend commandeered the roof of the five-story building where he has his studio, inviting strangers to take a night away from their routines. He didn’t tell people they couldn’t use their electronic devices, but they tended to set them aside.
“When given the opportunity to pay attention to other people and commune with each other, folks just seem to do it,” he said. “That was a nice surprise.”
Nor did he mull over questions of permits and permissions, building codes or certificates of occupancy. “I’m not a lawyer,” he said in answer to questions from several campers.
As the sun set behind the Manhattan skyline, the strangers gathered at a table to ponder our relationship with nature.
“This is sort of like glamping,” said Monica McLaughlin, a lawyer who arrived with her two Westies in a baby stroller, referring to the practice of experiencing the outdoors without leaving behind the comforts of a hotel.
“It is for you,” Mr. Stevenson said, with a rare edge on his voice. But she had a point. Given the market price for outdoor space and city views, what packs more glamour per square foot than a free night on a tarry roof deck? (Mr. Stevenson does not charge for his hospitality.)
And of course, the question on everyone’s mind: Where’s the bathroom?
One flight down, past an artist’s studio displaying an erotic canvas. “You take a left after the painting of the Asian porn chick,” said Nicole Armstrong, 29, who was preparing to begin graduate studies in epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University.
The night was cool and clear, so much so that it was possible to make out several stars. A pale orange three-quarter moon began a slow, gauzy descent.
Food materialized on the table: cookies, brownies, pudding, wine, pasta, chicken, more wine, couscous. A reporter’s Andalusian gazpacho proved that it could disappoint in more ways than one.
“Is that Bloody Mary mix?” Ms. Moyer asked, brightening. Alas, we were roughing it.
Out came a flask of bourbon and a water bottle filled with rum. Down went the stockpile of sweets. Mr. Stevenson provided a library, including an Army survival manual and works by Michel Foucault and Naomi Klein, but it was too dark to read.
Electronics receded to the background — not out of mind, nor even out of sight, but tamed somewhat in their claims on their owners’ attention. Ming Liu, 32, a freelance marketing consultant who is also Ms. Armstrong’s boyfriend, used an app on his phone to scan the label on a wine bottle, but when the group had trouble recalling the melody to Robin Thicke’s summer hit “Blurred Lines,” no one reached for the easy solution.
“We all have cellphones, guys,” Ms. Wei said, but blurred lines remained blurred.
Mr. Stevenson said he would like to camp on a building in Midtown Manhattan, where the neighboring skyscrapers would loom above like trees in the wild. Instead, the buildings of Brooklyn and beyond felt like mountaintops extending to the horizon. Chirping car traffic and beats from a distant dance party played the role of crickets in the urban pastoral. In place of postings to campers not to feed the bears, a sign from Metro PCS, which transmits cellular service from the rooftop, read: “Stay back! Radio-frequency energy may exceed exposure limits.”
By 10 p.m., Mr. Liu started to feel the agrarian spirit. “There’s so much space on rooftops,” he said. “You could have a jillion chickens on this roof.”
Ms. Wei checked her e-mail to see whether it was O.K. that she had not submitted work that was due earlier.
By 2 a.m., as the moon disappeared completely, the campers began to turn in. The music from the dance party still had another four hours of life in it.
Was the night tranquil? Perhaps, but in a wholly urban sense: dense, saturated with diffuse light and sound, the city’s pulse never subdued.
Ultimately the night resolved in the manner of all slumber parties, in manifestations of hair, breath and creased skin not often shared during business or pleasure hours. Just after 6 a.m., Ms. Wei sat up in her tent, put on her sunglasses and raised her phone to take a picture of the sunrise.
Mr. Stevenson encouraged all of the campers to sign their tent frames. Mr. Liu wrote for many: “I went to bed with a belly full of whiskey, starlight and the sound of distant traffic. All is well on the rooftop.”
No one had documented the night in real time on Twitter, Instagram or other social media. Ms. McLaughlin posted pictures of her dogs to Facebook, but only until it became too dark for photographs. In an e-mail two days later, she remained moved by the experience.
“I have been thinking about going off the grid for a while now,” she wrote. “The Bivouac experience reaffirms that desire. I enjoyed having no place to go and nothing specific to do.”
For Mr. Stevenson, though, the morning ended on a sour note. A neighbor complained about the camping, he said, so he was canceling the following two nights.
Still, he hopes to find another building for a weekend in September. And maybe one in New Haven. There’s a lot of unused roof space out there. You can see it on Google Earth.