On a recent weekday evening, I came across a block in Bed-Stuy whose residents occupied nearly every stoop. On the west end of the block, a couple, enjoying a moment of respite from their six other roommates indoors, planted a stoop-side garden. Two buildings over, a woman told her downstairs neighbor that someone had swiped a package from their building earlier that day—a neighbor down the street had witnessed it. On the east end, the occupants of another stoop chatted with the eight or so tenants on the stoop beside them, who were drinking, laughing, and playing music.
The stoop has long been a social space for multi-unit New York City apartments. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs wrote that it was an oft-misunderstood one, as advocates for city reform looked down on the idea of people congregating outside on stoops and sidewalks, whereas Jacobs saw stoops as vital to communities.
Though gatherings of up to 10 people are allowed under New York States coronavirus PAUSE order, social distancing is required, and it’s still safer to congregate outdoors than it is inside. Since the vast majority New Yorkers don’t have a private outdoor space, the stoop has become the center of New York City social life under quarantine.
New Yorkers have discovered that from the top of their stoops it is possible to safely catch up with a friend, commune with neighbors, clap for essential workers, or have a drink at a responsible distance, a quarantine rite known as the “stoop hang.”
“I don’t have a stoop, that’s why I go to other people’s stoops,” Cara Budner, 39, told Gothamist. She was sitting on a folding stool at the bottom of her friend Lexie Robinson’s stoop in Bed-Stuy. Her building in Clinton Hill only has a courtyard, she lamented—it’s not the same.
“I just came from another friend’s stoop two blocks down to get some yeast because you can’t find any anywhere and I want to make focaccia,” Budner said. “I’ve been riding around on my bike, seeing a lot of people on their stoops, and I’m jealous.”
Budner is just one of several visitors Robinson, who has lived in the building with her husband for 12 years, has entertained on her stoop during quarantine. Robinson said that before the pandemic, the apartment was a sort of “headquarters” for her and Budner’s large friend group; now it’s the stoop.
“Someone comes by every day,” Robinson said. “For the first month [of quarantine] someone would stand on the stoop and me and my husband would be in the window. And then recently …we’ve done a good job of sitting six feet apart outside. We set up these stools six feet apart.”
On the other end of the block, Hugo Beniada, 27, and Nat Hoffman, 26, told Gothamist that they’re usually out on their stoops for the better part of each day, taking FaceTime calls, drinking coffee, or getting some alone time away from their six roommates. Recently, they celebrated Hoffman’s birthday on the stoop with takeout from Saraghina, a local pizza spot on Lewis Avenue.
“We’ve always known our neighbors… but we didn’t really interact with our downstairs neighbors much before we were out here all the time, and now we know them pretty well,” Hoffman said. “Same with the kids—we didn’t used to see them as much but now we see them running around in the middle of the street.”
“And I would say maybe we didn’t know some of their names but now we do,” Beniada added.
“We’re on a first-name basis with everyone now,” Hoffman said. “Everything has become hyperlocal, so this is where we socialize.”
The New York City stoop wasn’t meant to serve a social function. The stoop became an architectural phenomenon in the early 19th century, when people were flocking to the city. Contractors converting single-family row houses into multi-family apartments wanted to optimize every square foot available, which involved raising the basement to the ground level so that it could be a living room. That meant adding a stoop so tenants could reach the entryway—now a story higher—from the street.
“I grew up in Brooklyn and people played stoop ball and kids sat on stoops, but that wasn’t their intent,” said Andrew Dolkart, who is a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, and the author of The Row House Reborn. “But by the late 19th century a lot of the old row house neighborhoods became working class, which turned stoops into social spaces.”
Yet not long after, stoops faced an existential threat: In a bid to eke out even more rentable space from former row houses, developers completely transformed their facades, in many cases ripping the stoops from the front of buildings to do so. Dolkart said New Yorkers might notice this especially on the Upper East and West Sides, in Brooklyn Heights, and on East 19th Street. Still, for the rest of the city, the stoop endured as a meeting place, a front-row seat, and a bridge between the public and private.
Recently, the stoop has also become a vantage point from which some New Yorkers are observing the mass demonstrations against police brutality that are taking place across the city. For those who are elderly or immunocompromised, watching from a stoop—maybe banging a pot or pan, or holding up a fist—is a way to show solidarity with a movement they may not be able to physically participate in.
Colin Fidele, 50, said he didn’t participate in a demonstration that took place in Crown Heights earlier this month because he has two young sons, ages 8 and 1, and he worried it would be too dangerous to bring them. But when protesters marched past his apartment building, he and his family came out onto their stoop to clap for them.
“We were all out here carrying on,” Fidele, who has lived in the neighborhood for 25 years, told Gothamist from the top step of his stoop. “All of my neighbors were out too. It shows we still care about each other in this country.”
Though he’s worried about the spread of the virus, Fidele said it’s nice to see people outside again, and to have more interaction with neighbors and members of the community who, like him, have been shut inside for months now. “We’re a mixed block in terms of race and lifestyle,” he said. “But we live like a family on this block.”
Jacobs said that the interactions neighbors have with each other on the city’s stoops and sidewalks is how communities build trust, especially “when the chips are down.” “Most of it is ostensibly trivial but the sum is not trivial at all,” she wrote in Death and Life. “The sum of such casual, public contact at a local level… is a feeling for the public identity of people, a web of public respect and trust, and a resource in time of personal or neighborhood need.”
The stoop’s purpose now isn’t merely to facilitate the social lives New Yorkers have lost to the pandemic. It’s a place to reestablish fellow feeling, and to experience the sense of togetherness that has helped city dwellers make it through other uncertain times.
“It’s a really important thing to experience how the neighborhood works—to watch the life of the city go by,” Dolkart said. “That’s something you don’t experience if you’re always inside. It’s a part of urban life to want to be out there and see what’s going on.”