Are you relatively new to this bustling metropolis? Don't be shy about it, everyone was new to New York once upon a time, except, of course, those battle-hardened residents who've lived here their whole lives and Know It All. One of these lifers works among us at Gothamist—publisher Jake Dobkin grew up in Park Slope and still resides there. He is now fielding questions—ask him anything by sending an email here, but be advised that Dobkin is "not sure you guys will be able to handle my realness." We can keep you anonymous if you prefer; just let us know what neighborhood you live in.
This week's question is from a transplant who wonders if she should let randos sit on her stoop.
Dear Native New Yorker,
While I am not a native New Yorker, I have given birth to one. I have lived here for 43 years, so more than a little New York got ground in.
My question is about strangers who want to sit on my stoop. My house is the first stoop past a bus stop on a busy street and I am frequently disturbed by people sitting on my stoop talking on the phone, screaming at one another or just being noisy and rowdy. People have left dirty diapers, McDonald's bags, coffee cups, deli bags, lottery tickets, metro cards, rubber gloves, you name it. Almost always while yakking. I have always worked at home and this is irritating to say the least.
I have decided to enforce the Paris Metro rules: If you are pregnant, old, or a war veteran, I'll let you sit here. In Brooklyn, this means if you're elderly, have trouble walking, are expecting, have really little children or a nearly uncontrollable number of bigger ones (i.e., small day-camp control), are morbidly obese or are impeded in ANY WAY WHATSOEVER I have no trouble letting you sit here. But if you're in good health, wearing high heels and talking non-stop into your cell phone, I will ask you to wait at the bus stop. On hot summer days when my stoop is the only shady place in sight, I drop the rules altogether.
My daughter (the native New Yorker) thinks I am an enormous bitch for asking anyone to leave, ever. But I am not their mother, I don't have to pick up after them and I am not willing to listen to their crap. Plus, if people see someone always sitting on my stoop waiting for the B38, they will think it's ok and then my house becomes an official bus stop.
I have thought about posting these rules, figuring that no one would ever cop to being morbidly obese, but I figured a sign could stop some of the people who really NEED to sit down.
What's your opinion?
Bitchy Resting Place
A native New Yorker responds:
My opinion is that I don't argue with older New York women about the rules they set for sitting on their stoops—that's the kind of thing that gets you a broom to the face. You could call that the first rule of New York stoops: she who owns the stoop makes the rules. But since you asked, what stoop rules are common here in New York? What stoop rules are just?
A young Jake Dobkin learns how to properly "hang out" on a Brooklyn stoop. (Private Collection of Jake Dobkin)
These are not trivial questions! If I had to redo the New York City seal, I'd replace the windmill with a stoop. It's not just that we have more stoops than windmills. It's because stoops are the most atomic unit of New York, where the city pushes in on your private space and your private space pushes back. Jane Jacobs talked about stoops as the beating heart of our civic life, the place where she watches "the scene of an intricate sidewalk ballet." She writes a lot about these "eyes on the street"—how all the people sitting on stoops and passing the time keeps a neighborhood safe and lively.
This is one of the big problems with replacing 4-story row houses with 40-story apartment buildings. You gain a lot more housing, but you lose the stoops, and with them, the liveliness and security of a neighborhood. Despite many attempts at altering the architecture by adding storefronts or benches or plazas, these tall buildings continue to have a deadening effect. So be grateful! I'd rather live on a vibrant block on the B38 line—say a stretch of DeKalb or Lafayette, with all the chaos of people walking around, waiting for the bus, and sitting on your stoop—than in one of those stretches of Flatbush nearby, with the new high-rise condos and desolate sidewalks downstairs.
But I understand that it does get a little busy sometimes, and when that sidewalk ballet pushes on to your stoop, it raises a perplexing question: is the stoop public or private space? Of course, you say, it's private: you paid for the house, you keep the stoop clean, and if someone slips and dies there, you're the one their heirs are going to sue. But if it's private space, why can't you drink a beer there? Why isn't there a locked gate or a fence around it? The answer goes back a long way‚ to 1600s, actually:
Stoop ... describe(s) the high entrance steps that almost give the old New York houses the appearance of small castles. In the ghetto neighborhoods especially, stoops served many different functions: projected outward into the great theater of the street, these elevated platforms were ideal for observation, courting, a chat, or gossip... The first builders in the city 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).
From the beginning then, the stoop was designed to balance the private—the needs for security, privacy, and prestige—with the public: the desire to engage with the city outside our doors. The question for the modern stoop owner, of course, is where to draw the line.
I have some friends who bought a house on a lively stretch of Christopher Street, right off 7th Avenue. They soon discovered that late at night, when the local bars closed and people drifted back toward the subway from the West Side piers, some of the locals would enjoy pausing on their stoop for an after-hours party, argument, vomiting session, or knife-fight. They tried various solutions; signs, calling the local precinct, moving the bedrooms to the other side of the building, etc., but eventually they did what a lot of people on busy stretches of street do: they bought an imposing fence with a lock on the front.
Theirs was an extreme case. On a less busy street, with a less vibrant prostitution scene, a polite sign may have worked. It also depends on the stoop layout. My parents have a stoop in Park Slope that's L-shaped, and no one ever takes a break on it, because you have to enter the yard and take a left before sitting down, and I think people find that too invasive. Whereas your normal stoop, sticking right out of the building, across from a bus-stop on a busy street, is obviously going to be much more attractive target for people looking to take a break.
Is your set of rules fair to these people? I think it is, in the sense that you are applying it equally to all people. It is just, in the sense that you show greater concern for the elderly, the very young, and the infirm, and allow them to use the stoop. It passes the utilitarian test: if everyone applied these rules to their stoops, the city would not be a worse place. And finally, your rules do not violate anyone's fundamental rights: there is no inalienable right to sit on a stoop which you do not own, and certainly no right to eat lunch or litter there.
But as you already know, just because your rules are fair, does not mean people will obey them. That's why you've got to buy the broom. And when all else fails, consider the hose. Like most humans, New Yorkers prefer not to get their asses soaked sitting on a wet stoop, and even the really aggressive ones will be deterred by a high-pressure stream of water to the face.
N.B.: The movie that best captures the complex interplay of urban dynamics that occur on stoops is Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing. The script mentions stoops more than 40 times, including this memorable exchange:
EXT: MOTHER SISTER'S STOOP--DAY
Da Mayor has his can of beer (not Budweiser) and the brown
paper bag is twisted into a knot at the bottom. He stops
and takes a long swig.
You ole drunk. What did I tell ya
about drinking in front of my stoop?
Move on, you're blocking my view.
Da Mayor lowers the can from his mouth and looks up at his
heckler. It's obvious from the look on his face he's heard
this before. Da Mayor contorts his face and stares at her.
You ugly enough. Don't stare at me.
Da Mayor changes his face into a more grotesque look.
The evil eye doesn't work on me.
Mother Sister, you've been talkin'
'bout me the last eighteen years.
What have I ever done to you?
You're a drunk fool.
Besides that. Da Mayor don't
bother nobody. Nobody don't bother
Da Mayor but you. Da Mayor just
mind his business. I love everybody.
I even love you.
Hold your tongue. You don't have
that much love.
One day you'll be nice to me. We
might both be dead and buried, but
you'll be nice. At least civil.
Da Mayor tips his beat-up hat to Mother Sister and takes a
final swig of beer just for her.
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