Brownstone Stoops are one of New York's Oldest Treasures
The hot summer nights started late this year, but in the last few days pockets of stoop sitters have sprouted up, enjoying the theater of the street.
Oh maybe it isn't what it used to be, in the days before air conditioning and television, but tens of thousands of stoop people are out there, doing what they have always done on ninety degree days and nights.
They are watching the world, their neighbors, pass by on hot summer evenings. Neighbors will be sitting, chatting and gossiping. Couples on a first date will be having long late night talks, followed a lingering first kiss.
It was on a warm night more than twenty five years ago that I first met my wife. I noticed the long bare legs, then the yellow shorts. She was strolling down the block with her friend Jill and her little white dog, Snooker.
I was sitting on a stoop in front of my brownstone apartment on West 83rd street with my friend Tom, a recent law school graduate, having a few glasses of wine and talking to all the neighbors who strolled by, especially the pretty girls. Everyone was invited to our poor man's salon.
Every night was a party, and on weekends fifteen or twenty people would spill out over the sidewalk. We got to know a lot of passersby that summer, watching everyone come and go from their dinners, long strolls, and parties.
Tom would say something and they would smile and walk away, but sometimes, after the third or fourth night of this ritual, they might stop and take us up on the offer of a glass of wine or a beer. Luckily for me, Jill and Jane did one night and I have been happy ever since.
Brownstone stoops are one of New York's oldest treasures and they are unmatched anywhere else in the world. Other cities - Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia -sometimes have a flight of stairs leading to the front doorway, but nowhere is the stoop as universal a fixture or on so grand a scale as in New York.
New York Stoops date back to the original Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam, as New York was then called. They brought the concept from the Netherlands (from the Dutch stoep or "small porch") where the threat of flooding made raising the front parlor a practical necessity.
Although New York's early settlers faced little danger from high water, the idea caught on and has remained a vestigial element of New York row houses for more than two hundred years. One practical advantage is that Manhattan and Brooklyn blocks rarely have service alleys behind the houses, as in the streets of other eastern cities; so the doorway under the stoop provides a much needed service entrance to the kitchen.
Socializing on stoops is not a particularly new tradition. According to an early account written by an Englishman in the 1820's, during evening parties in the hot summer months, "it is customary to sit out of doors on the steps that ornament the entrances of the house. On these occasions, friends assemble in the most agreeable and unceremonious manner. All sorts of cooling beverages and excellent confectionary are handed round and the greatest humor and gaiety prevail." From Charles Lockwood's book: Bricks and Brownstones.
I remember talking to Bill McArdle, a construction worker relaxing some years back on his stoop on Franklyn Street, in Greenpoint.
"I think they are the greatest things ever," he said looking down the street. "Do you see any stoop that is not filled with people? On a hot night, damn the television! This is a much better reality show. People sit out and look out for the kids and the people who don't have stoops, make do, drag out beach chairs and garbage cans, but a stoop is much better."
New York row houses flourished from 1783 well into the 1920s when many wealthy families began to leave their row houses for the suburbs or high-rise apartments. There developed a stigma about living so close to the streets. As the brownstones were demolished or were turned into rooming houses and small apartments, thousands of stoops were removed or torn down. Public housing projects for the poor, built during the 1940s and 1950s further contributed to the demise of brownstone stoops as thousands of classic row houses were decimated.
Technology contributed to the demise of stoop sitting: air conditioning made the time honored cooling function of stoops obsolete; television, and later, computers and the internet, provided an all too easy alternative to socializing with neighbors; and the widespread availability of automobiles changed the days when your neighbors were your friends by necessity.
But stoops did not disappear despite these assaults during the 40s, 50s and 60s. In 1959 architects and urban thinkers began to recognize the magnificent urban amenities that were being lost.
At the Tenth Meeting of the International Congress of Modern Architecture in Holland a new pro stoop movement was spawned. The insurgents castigated modern architects for having built "high rise slabs," and they called for an architecture that was "oriented to the needs of the communities and to the real needs of family that would bring people into contact with each other."
Out of this movement came such thinkers as Jane Jacobs and Oscar Newman, whose books and ideas led to a new appreciation of urban street life and of old time stoops.
In recent years sociologists, urban anthropologists, and urban planners have come to favorable scientific conclusions about stoops that many native New Yorkers know by the seat of their pants.
"It's a stage, a balcony. The better to see what's going on. People get to know each other, and that is part and parcel of a damn good security system." said William H. White, author of The Organization Man, who worked on a federally funded project studying street life in the 1970's.
Whyte, who owned a brownstone on East 94th Street, emphasized that people who sit on stoops are not out to mug you. "Whenever you have a good vigorous street life, a hell of a lot of activity, the safer the place."
"There are a lot of people who say that we have so much crime because our population density is so high. That is a lot of crap, because the most crime ridden parts of Harlem are where the density is too low. The vacant lots, where the houses have been burned down, where nobody is sitting on the stoops, that is where you will have a crime problem."
The tide began to turn.
Peter Wolf, former Chairman of the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, put up 625 housing units in Brownsville, Brooklyn. The new row houses (as opposed to the high rise projects) all featured stoops as an integral part of their design.
"After talking with sociologists and urban planners, we concluded that stoops are a tremendous asset in terms of socializing and neighborhood and in terms of crime deterrence," said Wolf. "Stoops are a semi-private territory and the do a great deal to alleviate the alienation and dehumanizing aspects of modern urban life. Our unit had air conditioning, but we found that it didn't matter. People still want to sit on our stoops."
Nancy Linday, who worked on William Whyte's Street Life project, said "Stoop life is something that people have looked at positively only recently. You know the old saying 'Get the kids off the streets.' Many recent immigrants blamed street life for their poverty and hardships. They had this feeling that they wanted to get their kids into a different environment. The street life and the stoops weren't the problem. It's only as a lot of this stuff has been torn down and ripped away has it been obvious to anyone with any sense that there was an awful lot of good to it. Now you have architects making up phony fire hydrants with sprinklers on them."
Linday lived for a year on East 101st street and observed different ethnic patterns to stoop sitting. The first thing she noticed is that a lot of stoop sitters are kids and old people, and many are women. In Spanish neighborhoods men don't really have a place in their apartments, the apartments are small anyway so they will sit on the stoop a lot. Spanish women will sit on their stoops only if their menfolk are close by, whereas black women will sit on stoops even if their men are nowhere around.
"There were a few white families on east 101st street and generally the adults didn't hang around the stoops much, their kids did. And the adults, being the kind of people who would live on an ethnically mixed block like that, liked the fact that they could let their kids play out in the street and that it was safe."
"Many upper middle class people are uptight about stoops because of a "fear that somebody is going to associate them with being lower class or working class" said Gloria Levitas, an anthropologist from Queens College who studied street life.
Because stoops are neither "in" nor "out", they play an important role in allowing the young and old to take part in the street life without leaving the sanctity of their homes. Stoop sitting and drinking are a working man's sidewalk café.
"Sitting on stoops keeps older people alive, "said Ms. Levitas. "Now, more and more, we tend to shut them off in large apartment houses and they have to go sit on the traffic island on Broadway suffocating from the fumes of the traffic."