Above the entrance to the parking structure, a sign displays the number of available spaces, but we—pedestrians—disregard this number and take the elevator up to the seventh level, step outside, and walk to the far ledge.
Stretched out below us is a quilt of roofs, white and tar-black, stitched with ventilation ducts and HVAC units. One building is crowned with solar panels; another sprouts a living roof. Nearby stores and restaurants draw our gaze with their Italianate façades painted summery colors: lavender, thunderstorm blue, sunshine, chartreuse, and olive. In the second story window of an adjacent building, a naked Barbie reclines on the sill.
Despite the commercial warmth of downtown, sidewalks are empty, and the damp asphalt hisses with the passing of an occasional car. Low, gray clouds press against the giants of our city: Tower Plaza, Burton Memorial Tower, the First National Building, and several new luxury apartment and condo high-rises. There is no kindness in the weak, unfocused daylight. Many of the surrounding windows are black and still, like they’ve been stuffed into hoods.
The residential neighborhoods encircling downtown are mostly obscured, reduced to two scratchy strips of trees to the north and west.
This is Ann Arbor in early winter, a bird’s-eye view. It’s not particularly breathtaking, not the kind of rooftop panorama you would pay for (sans car). I don’t snap and share any photos with my iPhone.
There have been moments, though, when the view dazzled. A sunny afternoon during the peak of autumn. At sunset. After dark on July 4th. A predawn hour during a recent lunar eclipse. This vantage point is visited by a fugitive wonder dependent upon season and atmospherics, the swirl of the heavens, the rise and fall of light.
When the skies are lackluster, we lower our focus to the neighborhoods and use breaks in the foliage to map the northwest side where we live—there’s Liberty, there’s Miller, there, at eye-level, is Sunset Road. We point out the Elks Lodge, a row of pastel Victorian houses, and the charming white home—so tiny from here!—that belongs to someone else, currently not for sale, yet we dream of owning someday.
While the sights are constantly changing, the view never fails to make me gasp and turn my legs to jelly when I lean over the chest-high ledge and glance down. And then I am always reminded of that winter day a few years ago when a woman stepped off this ledge. Since that day, I’ve never been able to look, fully, at the spot in the alley where she landed.
The absence of thick glass and protective fencing are what make the vistas so sharp, so near and intimate, though. We’re not so high off the ground that we can’t yell and wave at familiar passersby. The view from this parking structure orients me in time and place: to particular moments of awe, to an evolving skyline, to where I am today and where I hope to be in the future.