In Praise of Very Large Staircases: A Brief History of the Social Function of Stoops
Say the word “stoop” to a New Yorker of a certain generation and their eyes light up.
“Do you remember stoop ball?” our friend Roger used to say. “Or Ring-a-levio?”
(We, being too young, remembered neither.)
Stoop ball, as Roger explained it, was simple: one kid—the “batter” would throw a spaldeen against the stoop of a brownstone. The other kids would try to catch it. The farther you could get your spaldeen to fly, the more bases you could take. It was like baseball, except when it wasn't.
“Get it?” Roger would ask.
(We were too shy to ask what a spaldeen was. It's a rubber ball.)
“Yeah, we got it.”
For Roger, brought up in Brooklyn in the years around World War II, the stoop to his house was the focal point of the neighborhood, a place where he and his buddies could play until sundown. A place where the mothers of the neighborhood would gather for gossip. Sometimes, his father would shoot the breeze while having a cup of coffee—or something stronger. In a city without front porches, the stoop—a steep set of stairs leading to the second floor of a townhouse—served the purpose well.
Roger, were he still around to learn such things, would probably be surprised to discover that stoop does, in fact, mean porch. It comes from the Dutch word stoep, which literally means “step,” but which in New York's colonial era—when it was still New Amsterdam—referred to the wide, low porch outside a home.
As New York grew in the English and early American periods, an architectural Dutchness remained. Though most of Manhattan remained undeveloped, houses were still pressed up against each other, as they'd been in the Netherlands. Dutch stoeps became American stoops—no longer porches, but now raked staircases. With the adoption of the 1811 Manhattan grid plan, the city eliminated alleyways, and since houses had no back doors accessible from the street, homeowners had to find a way to segregate servants. (Owning a house back then generally meant employing at least one servant.) The stoop neatly solved this problem. Visitors and those who lived in the house climbed the stoop and entered through the main door. Servants and tradesmen ducked under the stoop to find a second entrance hidden there, which brought them straight into the kitchen. Upstairs/Downstairs was not limited to English manor houses.
As wealth flowed into New York in the nineteenth century, houses grew grander and taller. Stoops grew bigger, too, in part to accommodate moving in larger furniture, particularly grand pianos. In an era before radio, television, and phonographs, making music at home was a primary form of entertainment. Just by walking by someone's house and seeing their large stoop, you could tell whether or not their piano was bigger than yours. It was the three-car garage of Gilded Age New York.
So how did a symbol of wealth and prestige turn into the centerpiece of Roger's stoop ball tournaments?
The full answer to that is a dissertation on immigration, changing social mores, and the rise of the middle class in the city. But the short answer is that New York's elites abandoned their brownstones and townhouses in droves between World War I and II in search of the new marker of social acceptability—the apartment building. Once apartments became the preferred housing stock, the brownstone was given over to working- and middle-class families who remade them in their own image. Some retained the formal parlor on the ground floor for “serious” entertaining, but in good weather, day-to-day socializing moved outside, knitting together blocks into cohesive neighborhoods.
To Jane Jacobs, the great champion of urban living, stoops were as integral to the health of a city as parks, sidewalks, and street life. In our own era, as prices of townhouses soar and they once again become the domain of the city's wealthiest residents, will the stoop survive as a neighborhood gathering place? Or are we on the verge of a new Gilded Age? After all, you need a big stoop to carry in a 100-inch TV.
James and Michelle Nevius are place-based historians (that's a fancy term for walking tour guides), and the authors of Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City and Frommer's 24 Great Walks in New York. They can be found online at www.insidetheapple.net and www.walknyc.com.
Top image via Wikimedia Commons; Middle image via Flickr user Somebox; Last image via Flickr user Whiskeygonebad