The COVID-19 crisis has upended life in New York in many ways, some bad, and others really bad. Subway ridership has cratered. Broadway has gone dark. Bars and restaurants—at least those that aren’t offering takeout or delivery—have shuttered, with more closing their doors by the day.
These closures haven’t just devastated individuals’ livelihoods; they have abruptly, but hopefully not irreparably, destroyed the social vibrancy and spontaneity that makes New York so special. What happens to a city’s soul when people who are used to connecting with and bumping into other people (sometimes literally) can no longer do that?
Even parks, still open and perhaps more active than ever, have a different feel to them. The simple act of going to one—something that typically takes no more thought than, “Let’s go to a park”—is now fraught. Will it be crowded? What if a runner passes me too closely? What happens if my kids make a break for the playground equipment and I don’t have any hand sanitizer?
But there is one urban amenity that’s made for this crisis—one that, at least from my anecdotal observations, has seen a big uptick in use: the stoop.
Last Saturday, during a bike ride through Park Slope, Gowanus, Cobble Hill, and Carroll Gardens, I noticed that nearly every other stoop seemed occupied by someone checking their phone or reading a book. I saw sets of people sitting and talking to their neighbors across adjacent stoops. On Park Slope’s Sixth Avenue, a trio of musicians—roommates or family sheltering in place together, I hope—had set up on a stoop, playing songs to a small audience of folks who were respectfully and safely keeping their distance.
With bars and coffee shops closed, stoops are having a moment. They’re serving as an understudy for the “third place,” those spots that are neither home nor work, but are vital for forging social connections and maintaining happiness. Not quite public but not quite private either, stoops have afforded at least some New Yorkers a bit of breathing room between them and spouses or roommates working from home, or children engaged in remote learning. In many ways, they may be better than a home office, extra bedroom, or even a backyard. They’re an airlock of sorts, something that seamlessly connects a home with the city while offering at least a tiny buffer from it.
It’s fitting that the stoop should emerge as an important piece of social infrastructure during an uncontrollable pandemic, given its origin as a piece of physical infrastructure designed, in part, to protect humans against something beyond their control. As Mario Maffi, an American Studies professor, writes in his 2004 book, New York City: An Outsider’s Insider View:
...the first builders in the city (including the celebrated Crijn Fredericsz, who landed in Nieuw Amsterdam in 1625) brought with them their customs of erecting buildings that were elevated (as protection against the havoc wreaked by North Sea floods) and flush to the street (to make up for the lack of space in a canal-dominated city like Amsterdam).
It’s unlikely that anyone taking to their stoops right now has these origins in mind, nor are they necessarily aware that stoops get their name from the Dutch word for stair, stoep. All they are thinking, perhaps, is that the stoop is a perfect place to take a much-needed break.
For New Yorkers, stoops often function as a symbol of social resilience during a moment of crisis. During the August 2003 blackout, my neighbors and I escaped the stupefying heat of our darkened apartments and took to the stoop of our building on 5th Street near Prospect Park West. We helped an elderly upstairs neighbor get outside; we shared food that was likely to go bad, and beers that were quickly getting warm. It was a scene that replicated itself throughout our neighborhood and many others.
One key difference between the 2003 blackout the 2020 pandemic is that this time, sharing stoops with friends and neighbors is ill-advised. For the most part, only those privileged enough to occupy an entire building can safely bet on having sole access to a stoop. Still, the benefit of this piece of urban infrastructure remains. Stoops are places where people can take a break from a Zoom meeting or a Netflix binge and look out their streets. They may even experience the kind of chance encounters that are vanishingly rare right now, confident that if someone they know walks by, the stoop itself will reliably enforce the requisite six-foot separation we all must keep from each other.
The urbanist and activist Jane Jacobs, writing under far less fear and stress than many New Yorkers are feeling right now, describes the attraction of stoop sitting in her 1961 classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. “Nobody enjoys sitting on a stoop or looking out a window at an empty street,” she wrote. “Almost nobody enjoys doing such a thing. Large numbers of people entertain themselves, off and on, by watching street activity.”
Our streets may be less active than they were when Jacobs wrote these words nearly 60 years ago—or even than they were just a few weeks ago—but they are still places where people can entertain themselves. And in this particular moment, when we must remain physically distant, the stoop is the best place for New Yorkers to go when they’re craving the sort of social closeness only this great city can provide.