Wednesday, September 28, 2016

I Liked It Better When ... #4

-- By Tom Phillips

West 13th Street
I liked it better when you could sit on people's stoops.  The latest "security" measure in New York is landlords installing chains and gates on the front stairs of apartment houses, to keep off people looking to sit a spell.

Stoop-sitting is not a right -- the landlord owns the stairs -- but it is a tradition in New York.   Anybody's stairs were public space, with a few unwritten rules; you moved aside politely when a resident was entering or leaving -- you didn't make too much noise or leave a mess.  Anyone in the building could ask you to leave, but they usually didn't.

The stoop has been a crucial vantage point -- to observe the life of the block, the street, to see the world go by, to take advantage of chance encounters.  I spotted my future wife going by, as I sat on a stoop in Chelsea.

The stoop is also a gathering place.  Neighbors congregate, friends happen by, strangers inquire about this or that, make friends, compare notes.  If you're looking for an apartment, the best way to check out a building is to sit on the stoop, or see who's sitting on the stoop, and casually ask about the place.

In many Hispanic neighborhoods, the stoop and the sidewalk are the center of social life, the ideal place for debates or dominoes, spectators welcome.  The most painful sign of gentrification in my current neighborhood on the Upper West Side is the appearance of locked iron gates, barring the stoops of a row of tenements on 109th Street.  Long-time residents, mostly Hispanic, are being forced out to make way for Columbia students at much higher rents.  Stoops that used to be mini-parks on summer nights are now off limits -- deadening the atmosphere, driving people away.

As the neighborhood gets richer, its life gets more impoverished.

A literary footnote: When I was just 17, I used to go to Greenwich Village with my friend Chris Miller, to sit on people's stoops and drink beer, and hear beatnik poets in coffee houses. One night at the Gaslight we sat at a table with the poet and actor Taylor Mead, who kindly read us some of his latest works.  He was writing very brief poems. One went:
                                                         Fuck the stoop.
What is that about? we asked.  Oh, he said, with the world-weariness of a mock aristocrat, "some guineas kicked me off their stoop."

Another poem went:

                                                          Pass the salt. 

Taylor Mead died in 2013.  Pass the salt.  RIP the stoop.

-- Copyright 2016 by Tom Phillips

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1 comment:

  1. I've long wanted to live in the city, especially New York. Sad to say, your stoop reminiscence makes me feel a little less sad not to be in the city. Sad but beautiful and oh so prescient, I fear, of more isolation to come. On the other hand, who needs stoops. We can text... Rusty