Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Bent Over Backwards

I live in an old neighborhood, and what's more, I run around in it. This means I get to wheeze beatifically at old men with dogs, to improve my mileage when the druggies shamble in from the main drag, and to inspect the architecture. The houses are a mix, but most were built in the early part of the 20th century and feature solid construction, wide windows and hardwood floors. I like to look at them while going red in the face and praying for death.

It took me until yesterday, though, to figure out what it is the houses have that houses in other neighborhoods don't. The feature in question is unprepossessing, demarcated sometimes by pillars and sometimes by an overhung roof. It's level with the front door, made of concrete, and reachable via a small flight of steps. The word came to me slowly, a gift from my sordid, book-soaked youth. The thing is a stoop.

Stoops: so what? It's not like there aren't other places to sit. I've got the couch handy, and the ottoman, not to mention the deak chair, the barstool, and, when necessary, the floor. What's so special about stoops?

I'd argue that anytime the archetypal "house" shifts in the minds of the American public, that shift is a reflection of a corresponding shift in society. Garages appeared when we got cars. We got rec rooms when we got TVs. And we gave up the stoop when we stopped sitting on our front porches and started sitting on our butts.

All the action's in the back now. Decks, backyards, sandboxes, screened in porches: all are designed to give us private space, a way to pretend that our neighbors are anything but solid flesh. Outward-focused stoops, with their rocking chairs and their porch swings and their social opportunities, are now the province of the poor. In the newest houses, the only thing that faces the street is the garage.

My own house is an old house. Once upon a time, it even had a stoop, but that stoop has long since been made into a sunroom. I like the sunroom: it's light-filled, warm in summer, a good place for plants. But every now and again, in a fit of perversity, I wonder what I'm missing. Concrete cool under the soles of my feet, the whine of the swing, one hand raised to say hi.

1 comment:

Ellie said...

I love stoops. I love communities where people sit out in the front of their houses. I'm not sure they really exist, anymore, but I love them all the same.

When I lived at Stone Soup, I spent plenty of Summer evenings and weekends out in our front yard, working in the vegetable garden. People would often stop and ask me questions about it, toss me a compliment or an observation, or just nod in passing. Once, a neighbor gave me some pepper plants she'd started. Another time, I gave a Spanish-speaking grandma a bunch of the mint that was running wild out front (once her daughter had helped us figure out that she wanted some and I was more than willing to share).

That was the most connected to my neighborhood I felt while I was living in the big city. I loved it. And I felt safer, too, more like I belonged.

Do you have a front yard, Anne? Maybe you should dig it up and plant some veggies.