-By Richard Wegal
Sometimes our cities get the unwarranted reputation as being cold, dangerous and unfriendly places to live. Many of our European friends often remark how much they love New York, but that they could never live here.They remember the sky scrapers often obscuring the sun, bustling streets with honking horns, ambulance sirens and the ominous and ubiquitous steam rising from our streets. Do any of us really understand why that steam is there? I guess it is just one of those things we accept blindly as a fact of life of living in New York. Our friends’ opinions of the city often change, however, when they see where we live on Grove Street. They never expect to see a street lined with stately trees forming a sort of gothic canopy protecting our block. They are surprised to see the quaint birdhouses often hidden in plain sight giving the block some needed and welcome color in the wintery months when the Autumn leaves have fallen. They are amazed to see the beautiful flowers and selected greenery that abounds in the tree-wells around every tree, not only on Grove Street, but on the surrounding streets such as Bedford, Barrow and Commerce. They marvel at the lack of traffic and have even chuckled at the sight of a cat lying peacefully and undisturbed in the middle of Commerce street near The Cherry Lane Theatre. Our city, however, has another secret weapon that allows for many social interactions that often are not present in the suburbs. There, most things now seem to be oriented to the back of the house where often residents drive home from work directly into their garages never even seeing the neighbors. They enter the house from the garage to enjoy their back yard, pool or outside deck. What do we have that they often do not have? This secret weapon to which i refer is THE STOOP!
It comes from the Dutch word STOEP which literally means step or tiny front porch. If one is observant, one can still see the remnants of our Dutch history as New Amsterdam. For example, just notice the top of 75 1/2 Bedford Street, often called the skinniest house in New York or the Edna St. Vincent Millay House, and you will see the stair like roofline in the traditional Dutch Style. There are many more examples of this, but you have to look up.
With the adoption of the 1811 Manhattan grid plan, the city eliminated alleyways, and since the houses had no back doors accessible from the street, homeowners and the newly emerging middle class had to find a way to segregate the servants. So the stoop became the answer to this “problem”. Visitors and those who lived in the house, climbed the stairs and entered the main door of the house while servants, delivery people and tradesmen ducked under the stoop and entered a second entrance which brought them usually straight into the kitchen.
As New Amsterdam became New York and the City began to prosper in the 1800s, the brownstones became taller and grander and the size of their stoops and front doors reflected and echoed that growth. If you look at the more elegant houses on parts of Washington Square and the blocks north between 5th and 6th Avenues, you can notice some the front doors are double the size of their neighbors. This increase in door and stoop size allowed its residents to have larger and more ornate furniture, often including grand pianos, delivered into the home. in contrast, many Dutch row houses still have hooks attached to the front allowing ropes to hoist the furniture through the front windows. It is interesting to note that the Dutch are taxed according to how many windows they have on the front of their house. To respond to this law, enterprising and thrifty Dutch citizens enlarged the size of their windows which allowed for fewer windows facing the street. Another interesting cultural difference between the Dutch and many Americans is that in a city like Amsterdam, you can frequently look directly into the houses because the Dutch often do not have curtains or shades in the living rooms and kitchens. Their philosophy is that “We have nothing to hide, and we are proud of having just what we need. So have a look and also notice how neat and clean everything is.” Ah the Dutch. We can learn a lot from them on so many levels.
I doubt that the fine ladies and gentlemen of the Gilded Age of New York ever sat on their front stoops gossiping with neighbors, but as times and fashions changed, the stoop became an integral part of New York life. How many American films show kids playing stick ball in the streets while their watchful mothers sat on the front stoops kvetching with neighbors. The stoop also became a place where men could gather to smoke a cigar or talk business or sports. Some people to this day, use their stoop as an extension of their living room to read, write, conduct business or socialize with fiends.
I remember when I first moved to Grove Street in 1974, I would often pass by numerous older ladies on Bedford Street who would drag their colorful lawn chairs onto the sidewalk to get a little sun and to chat with neighbors. Where there were no stoops, the sidewalk provided a viable alternative. I miss those ladies.
I feel so lucky that although I do not live in a Brownstone, my building at 35 Grove has 3 identical stoops with southern exposure. it was once 3 tenement buildings, that were combined and renovated in 1973 into duplex and triplex apartments . Over the years these stoops have been my refuge as a place to sit outside with my dog, talk with neighbors, read a book, or meet and assist tourists often looking for directions.
The stoop is where I courted my husband Michael and wooed him with a cup of coffee a bottle of water and dog biscuits for his dog. We are still together 23 years later so it essays to have worked. It is where I have listened to neighbors strumming their guitars, and others singing folksongs, or even opera, sometimes well, often not. We have even held informal bock association meetings there. So if you want to be in touch with the pulse of your block and the latest news and gossip, sit on your STOOP. and if you don’t have one, borrow someone else’s for a short while.
Some cities like Louisville, Kentucky have Front of the house nights where everyone brings their dining room table to the front lawn to have dinner or at least eat while sitting on the front steps of their house or apartment building. They are encouraged to talk to their neighbors and perhaps even meet them for the first time. What a charming and novel idea.
I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture of Village life because we have all experienced the negative impact of people sitting on our stoops and behaving badly. But I do think that the pros outnumber the cons.
Jane Jacobs, one time Village resident and champion of urban living once said “Stoops are as essential to the health of a city as parks, sidewalks and street life.”
So even though STOOP is not a very aesthetically pleasing sounding word, they do provide not only accessibility into our buildings, but they offer a great opportunity to interact with others in this enchanting and magical place called Greenwich Village.
Photo Credit: One of the many beautiful bird houses in West Village. Photo Dusty Berke