Desperately Seeking Rooftop View

Ryan Kailath lives far from his beloved mountains of Northern California. Yet, he still finds a way to be on top of the world.

Desperately Seeking Rooftop View

More than eight million people, eight-and-a-half billion square feet. Suffice to say, New Yorkers have a love-hate relationship with space, all the more reason for us to occasionally get away from it all. But finding sanctuary in the city is not as hard as you might think. In “My Secret New York Sanctuary,” a new series by Narratively and WNYC, we get up close and personal with New Yorkers who use a little ingenuity to find solitude in some unlikely places.

Ryan Kailath missed the mountains of Northern California. He missed scrambling up cliff faces and trekking down steep ravines. He missed nature, and that sense of awe, spirituality and solitude it provided him. So he recreated the feeling smack in the heart of New York City.

“I try to get on the roof of any building that I’m in,” says Kailath, 31, who moved to New York in 2007 and estimates that he has since sneaked onto the tops of at least fifty NYC buildings.

Ryan and his then-girlfriend were at a Rangers game at Madison Square Garden for his 29th birthday, "in the blue seats as usual," he says. "We actually just went looking for the bathroom, found a doorway that led to a set of stairs that led to a propped-open door onto the roof. We may have stayed up there a while..."
Ryan and his then-girlfriend were at a Rangers game at Madison Square Garden for his 29th birthday, “in the blue seats as usual,” he says. “We actually just went looking for the bathroom, found a doorway that led to a set of stairs that led to a propped-open door onto the roof. We may have stayed up there a while…”

Madison Square Garden is the crown jewel in his portfolio of thrills, but there’s also a long list of failures, including 30 Rock, and more than a few run-ins with security personnel.

But Kailath, a journalist, swears it’s not about the adrenaline—even if the reporter he brought along on his latest excursion, to a Times Square hotel, might beg to differ, just a little bit.

“There’s nothing that gives me more pure joy than just being out alone, rock-climbing or hiking on top of a beautiful mountain. So, for me, that’s a large part of why I like to get on rooftops. I get some of that same feeling,” he says. “Trying to open the door that might not seem like it opens, it’s a way of bringing back a sense of wonder, and to stay grateful for what actually is an amazing world.”

The High Line, after hours: "Done this a few times, most recently last summer," Ryan says. The outing involves sneaking past a security guard and scaling a fence up to the start of the third (unopened) section of the High Line, and then dangling off a billboard on the way out.
The High Line, after hours: “Done this a few times, most recently last summer,” Ryan says. The outing involves sneaking past a security guard and scaling a fence up to the start of the third (unopened) section of the High Line, and then dangling off a billboard on the way out.
September 2013: A giddy Ryan as he heads up to the roof of the Times Square hotel in question.
September 2013: A giddy Ryan as he heads up to the roof of the Times Square hotel in question.
On the roof of the hotel. This photo was taken by a friend of Kailath's who shortly thereafter failed to run from security, as Kailath readily did; the friend was swiftly apprehended and questioned.
On the roof of the hotel. This photo was taken by a friend of Kailath’s who shortly thereafter failed to run from security, as Kailath readily did; the friend was swiftly apprehended and questioned.
Ryan in his native habitat of Northern California, "climbing a big rock."
Ryan in his native habitat of Northern California, “climbing a big rock.”
Bowery tenement building, June 2011: "This is a huge apartment block at the corner of Bowery and Delancey. I waited outside until I saw someone enter, and followed them before the door closed. The building turned out to be a surely-illegal Chinese housing share...tiny rooms with people wandering freely between them—only Cantonese—women cooking rice in the hallways, drying laundry in the stairwells. The roof had a lot of established street artist pieces. That's me in the pic."
Bowery tenement building, June 2011: “This is a huge apartment block at the corner of Bowery and Delancey. I waited outside until I saw someone enter, and followed them before the door closed. The building turned out to be a surely-illegal Chinese housing share…tiny rooms with people wandering freely between them—only Cantonese—women cooking rice in the hallways, drying laundry in the stairwells. The roof had a lot of established street artist pieces. That’s me in the pic.”

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Karen Frillmann, WNYC’s Enterprise Editor, was the supervising producer, and Paul Schneider, was the broadcast engineer on the story. 

Find more Secret Sanctuaries on WNYC’s website.