Stoops and front porches
A recent trip to to North America took me to New York City and then Toronto over the Halloween period. My last trip to NYC had been during Easter 2011; then, many of the front steps of the houses in Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens, where I was staying, were decorated with painted eggs, bunnies and flowers. This time around, I noticed – it was hard not to – that the steps, or ‘stoops’, of my adopted neighbourhood of Fort Greene were adorned with carved pumpkins, white cobweb string, skeletons and ghosts.
I love this aspect of North America – the willingness to interact with the community in this lighthearted way. In the UK, similar attempts to decorate home exteriors are often met with snobbery and derision. The look is often tacky, of course, but so what? It’s meant to be. What’s important about these attempts is that they form a playful acknowledgement that, as city dwellers, we live as part of communities.
The carved pumpkins on the brownstones stoops help to form a liminal space between the private and public spheres, in the same way that balconies do in Hispanic countries. The North American urbanist Jane Jacobs famously wrote about this aspect of city space and public interaction. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), she suggested that the use of stoops – and particularly people sitting on them, watching the goings on of the street – was important for generating a sense of community through the casual social interaction they engender. This, in turn, makes streets safer.
In the UK, we don’t really have a direct equivalent of brownstone stoops, the architectural feature that makes this kind of spontaneous interaction possible. Our back gardens can help (or hinder) relations with our neighbours, but our urban architecture doesn’t elicit passing conversations on the street like stoops do.
After New York, I headed – courtesy of Amtrak – to Toronto, coincidently the city where Jane Jacobs also ended up for the last four decades of her life, after clashes with the City of New York authorities. Toronto’s equivalent of New York’s stoops are its domestic front porches. People sit on their porches, looking out onto the street, all through the hot summer and into the autumn, when most are decorated for Halloween.
Many people dream of riches; me, I dream of stoops and front porches…
A family friend, Bruce Landesman, read this blog post and sent me this illuminating note about it:
‘I grew up in Brooklyn. Most of my life was in Flatbush, not far from Brooklyn College. Every house on my block had a stoop. They were, I suspect, not decorated in the same interesting way as the stoops you found. But for us kids they were a source of great pleasure. We played two games. One was just called stoop ball. You threw a pink ball (called a “Spalding” but pronounced “Spaldeen” in New York) against the stoop. If you caught it in one bounce you got 5 points; if you caught it without a bounce you got 10 points. If you hit the point of the stoop so it went high in the air and caught it before bouncing, you got many more points. If you failed to catch the ball or caught it on more than one bounce you were out and the next person’s turn. The other was stoop baseball. You threw the ball against the stoop, trying to hit the point that would make it fly. If it went a certain distance and your opponent did not catch it you got a single, double, triple or home run. If your opponent caught it you were out. Three outs made an inning. Whoever was ahead after nine innings was the winner.
We loved these games. They had the hazard that the ball would fly into the street and you had to field it without being hit by a car! We played all out games in the street and dodging the cars was always part of the game. Fortunately it was a one way street and the cars moved slowly.’