Above it all

Enjoy the view from your rooftop deck, but keep neighbors happy, too, by following a few rules


Let's call it rooftop etiquette -- something those who live in the suburbs never have to worry about. This Tuesday, it will be especially relevant. Everyone downtown who has a rooftop deck or a high balcony will be out watching the harbor fireworks, probably with drink in hand. Friends are invited. Music will be played.

Baltimore is a city that loves its rooftop decks, particularly this time of year. Perched high above the city like treehouses for grown-ups, these decks are the only backyard that many of the gentrified rowhouses in Fells Point, Federal Hill and Canton have.

What's more, there's a growing demand for them. As folks move back to the city from the suburbs, says David Tillman at the city's Department of Housing, "the rooftop deck is an amenity they definitely want."

But if these new urbanites are imagining the privacy of their backyard patio, only with a panoramic city view -- well, they're in for a surprise.

"It's our oasis," says Stacy Iamele, 32, who often has dinner with her husband and baby son on their tiny Fells Point deck, which has just room enough for an umbrella table, a few pots of flowers and an ice chest. But she knows it's an oasis with other oases nearby.

Their deck is higher than the other decks around them, but they are still close enough for conversation. Noise and lack of privacy have never been concerns, says Iamele. "We live in the city because we like everything close."

"Now that we have a baby, though," she adds, "a huge party might be a problem."

So where does rooftop etiquette come in? If you have considerate neighbors, no worries, even in areas like Federal Hill where the rooftop decks are so close together you can walk from one to the next. There seems to be an unspoken agreement on how to act.

Love thy neighbor is particularly relevant here, because many of these decks are right on top of each other.

Joe Oleszczuk, 34, a magician who works out of his Federal Hill home, often sits on his deck during the day to make phone calls. If someone else comes up, he or she will wave and go back down, respecting his privacy.

"During the daytime we give each other space," Oleszczuk says. At night it's much more neighborly.

"A lot of times, we're hopping from deck to deck. If someone is cooking, they offer me not just a drink but a plate of food."

On the other hand, one Federal Hill couple, who wish to remain anonymous, locked themselves out on their deck one day. They went from rooftop to rooftop until they found an open door, descended through their neighbors' house -- calling out as they went. No one was home, and they crept out unnoticed, never saying anything to the owners.

That would be an example of bad rooftop etiquette.

Kevin Ramirez, 29, an owner of Urban Posters in Fells Point, also owns a house there. He has an etiquette tip for those giving parties on their decks.

"Install a power plug so you won't have to use batteries for your music," he urges.

Whoa, Kevin. This story is about rooftop etiquette, not on how to throw a great party. Stay on track.

Oh, yeah.

"OK," he says. "Have a place for cigs so your guests won't flick them over the side."

Or even worse, so they won't flick them onto someone else's deck. This happened to Oleszczuk and his wife, who found cigarette butts on their deck one morning. They have two very small children, so it particularly worried them. They talked to their neighbors on each side, one of whom had had friends over and volunteered to clean up.

"There has to be constant communication," says Oleszczuk.

Anything that goes down from a deck or high balcony is potentially a problem, "from cigarette butts to flower pots," points out Ron Klemkowski, 50, an attorney who has a beautifully landscaped third-floor balcony off his Fells Point condominium.

"Then there are the animals," he says, warming to the subject. "Cats can go from balcony to balcony" or deck to deck. "Yappy little dogs seem to be a problem."

Yappy little dogs, of course, can be a problem even if you don't have a deck.

Rita Sutter, a 32-year-old freelance writer, is Klemkowski's next-door neighbor. At least two cats, dogs, flowerpots and window boxes have plunged from balconies in the complex, she says.

"Mostly, though, balcony life conjures a pleasant sense of community," she says. "I've heard other residents learning to play trumpet and piano. It's cool. But when cigarette smoke gusts up from a balcony below first thing in the morning, I firmly close the sliding glass doors and wish my neighbors would consider nicotine patches."

One summer there was a woman, "an artist who has since moved," Sutter says, "who was extremely vocal when romantic with her boyfriend. For weeks I thought the sound was coming from a feral cat. ... Then I realized the sound was coming from the apartment beneath mine. Etiquette in that situation required feigning total hearing loss."

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