The World Through The Eyes Of A Teen Rooftopper

by Sayyid-Ali Abdel-Qawi
Also Featured on The California Sunday Magazine
11.30.17

I packed my worn-out JanSport bag, grabbing only the essentials: water bottle, camera, phone charger, SD card, portable battery, and a cheap fold-up tripod. I put on some clothes that wouldn’t get caught on anything or stand out — where I was going, I didn’t want to attract any attention. I told my dad I was heading to the city to take some photos — not a lie, but not the whole truth. As I took the bus to a bart station near the Oakland airport, passing closed-down liquor stores and empty cars surrounded by shattered glass, my thoughts turned upward, toward the tallest skyscrapers in San Francisco.

My goal, whether it was by elevator or 50 flights of stairs, was to make it to the top without anyone knowing I was ever there.

I was 14 or 15 when I started rooftopping. It’s a form of urbexing, or urban exploring, where you discover the most stunning, vertigo-inducing view — either by sitting on the edge of a skyscraper or climbing up a construction crane. It’s not new, exactly. From parkour to free running, people have been transforming the tops of buildings into private playgrounds for decades. In May, a group of teens made the news for posting Instagram videos of doing somersaults and backflips on a walkway atop the Golden Gate Bridge.

People are drawn to rooftops for various reasons. Some are trying to prove just how unafraid of death they are. Others want to photograph the city in the perfect light. I wanted to capture something that’s both spectacular and fleeting. If all went well, once I got the shot, I disappeared.

I was introduced to rooftopping when I was a sophomore in high school. I was looking at the Instagram feed of a kid known as Zeus, who sat across from me in English class, when I saw a photo of his sneaker-clad feet dangling from the scaffold of a partially constructed building. The streets were reduced to tiny lines of traffic 50 stories below. At first, I thought he was insane. But just looking at the picture gave me a rush. The next time I saw Zeus, I grilled him: Is it safe? How do you get up there? How do you know where to go? Can I come along?

Zeus taught me the ins and outs of rooftopping. Because it’s not legal (you have to trespass), rooftoppers follow a strict set of unwritten guidelines:

Rule No. 1: Leave no trace. If the construction workers or guards see that things have been tampered with or broken, they will increase their security measures, cutting off access to the views.

Rule No. 2: Don’t get caught. If you do, that location will become more difficult to enter for the next rooftopper who comes along.

Rule No. 3: Don’t give away all your secrets. Finding your own path to the top is what makes the journey worthwhile. If newbies can’t figure it out on their own, they shouldn’t be doing it.

Rule No. 4: Don’t go alone. This is probably the most important rule. There are definitely some benefits to rooftopping alone, but it’s a creative activity that works best with two people. If you are alone, who will model in your shots? How will you work through visual concepts and make them better? And who will catch you when you fall?

Zeus and I became friends, conquering rooftop after rooftop together. We only sought out ones that were worth the effort. Rooftops that would give us the best views. Rooftops that brought us closer to the heavens. Hotels, apartments, office towers — usually at least 40 stories high.

I’ve had close calls. If my friends and I felt that security guards or curious bystanders were following us, we would act like we belonged. I once attempted to jump from one part of a roof to another and sprained my ankle (we decided to climb another roof right afterward to make up for it).

Rooftopping was worth all the risks, though. I wasn’t doing well in school, and I didn’t have too many friends. Home life wasn’t much better — my mom had recently moved to a different state. Going up to the rooftops was a break from all that. I’d feel the wind whipping around my body, as if it could blow me away any minute. Through all this, I was introduced to a whole community of rooftoppers, all talented photographers — dozens of teens and adults— who became good friends. We gave the buildings that we conquered or wanted to conquer new names, like “The 50” and “555,” after their number of stories or addresses. It felt like we owned them.

But last year, when I turned 18, I decided to stop rooftopping. Suddenly, the momentary thrill of being somewhere I shouldn’t be held some not-so-fleeting consequences — being charged as an adult for trespassing, for one. Maybe I stopped because I was growing up, too. As a younger teenager, I wanted to stand out and, at the same time, fade into the background. It’s a tension that defined my adolescence, and rooftopping allowed me to do both: I’d secretly make my way to the tops of buildings when no one was looking. Then I’d post my photos for everyone to see.

In one of my favorite photographs, you can see me, a small shadowy figure looking down at the cityscape. The surrounding buildings and I are silhouetted against the greater light. There, but also not.

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