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An ode to the Brooklyn stoop

From today's NYTimes:

Stoop Warming Is a Sign of Spring
The unseasonably cold spring has imposed an unfortunate side effect on my Brooklyn neighborhood - the delay of "stoop sitting" season.

For most Americans, the front-door step is a miserly shelf barely large enough for the morning paper. But for those of us who live in brownstone New York, the front stoop is often a grand exterior staircase decorated with ironwork that leads from the sidewalk to the main entrance. This style was imported more than three centuries ago by settlers from the low-lying Netherlands, where the threat of flooding made it wise to build parlor floors high above street level.

Space-starved New Yorkers quickly turned their stoops into alternative living areas that were heavily used in summer. As a British traveler wrote in the 1820's: "It is customary to sit out of doors on the steps that ornament the entrances of the houses. 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 good humor and gaiety prevail."

These rollicking stoop scenes calmed down considerably when air-conditioning came along and let people spend torrid nights indoors. But dinner parties at my house often resolve themselves on the stoop, as they did in the 19th century, with talk, a nightcap and more talk as guests ready themselves for the journey home.

People tan themselves or read on the high stoops of Brooklyn. There are also the famous stoop sales, where households can sell off unwanted possessions. But the stoop sitter's most crucial function is to stir the social mix by inviting conversation from passers-by. Neighbors who have not been seen all winter inevitably stop at the stoop to pass on news of births, deaths and plans to retire to Florida. New neighbors pass by shyly at first but eventually stop to join in. Dogs participate, too, scooting up the steps to greet the sitter.

This process is way behind schedule this year, thanks to the bone-chilling spring. But those ice-cold steps will need to warm up considerably before the stoop sitters can settle into place and get the conversation started.


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