Step Into the Past

Radiyah Hennie and her uncle Tony Hennie remember the days when their neighborhood felt like one big family: Kids would play jump rope outside, neighbors would knock on each other’s doors to say hello, and residents would organize block parties. But those days are behind the Hennies as their block in Brewerytown has gentrified, leaving just a few older houses remaining in a sea of new developments. “I’m 21, and I feel like I watched this neighborhood change so much,” Radiyah Hennie, who works as a salon assistant, says. “People don’t really care to be outside anymore.”

When I speak to the Hennies, they’re enjoying a balmy spring day over takeout food on their front steps. Stoop-sitting is a daily routine for the pair. “We had some crazy days, but all our life, this was our step,” Tony Hennie, 40, who works as a restaurant cook, says. “It never changed.” Their bright yellow house is one of the few on the block where stoop-sitting is even possible. Across the street, the homes have metal grates for steps, while others on the block have narrower, sideways-facing steps unsuitable for conversation.

Thinking of post-industrial metropolises like Philadelphia, the images of family, friends, and strangers gathering on stoops come to mind. Stoop-sitting feels like a classic testament to the working-class culture of a city, a sign residents aren’t too bougie to talk to their neighbors and are willing to allow themselves to be a part of the public space. During a global pandemic, stoops provide a place to be socially distant while not antisocial, a spot to enjoy the company of fellow citydwellers away from the plastic coverings and plexiglass barriers that have become all too familiar in indoor environments.

Talking to the Hennies, I wondered: was stoop culture on the way out?

In her famous critique of 1950s urban planning The Death and Life of Great American Cities, activist and writer Jane Jacobs lauds the stoop as a centerpiece of the city community, describing children playing games and residents drinking soda on their front steps in the bustling hum of New York City. “When I get home after work, the ballet is reaching its crescendo,” Jacobs writes. “This is the time of roller skates and stilts and tricycles, and games in the lee of the stoop with bottletops and plastic cowboys.”

One might be inclined to think the Internet and social media have caused the stoop culture of Jacobs’ America to fade. Whereas we used to interact in our front yards and sidewalks, we now interact on Facebook or Fortnite. Then there is the practical question: Even if people wanted to talk to their neighbors, would they have a stoop to sit on? Amid gentrification and redevelopment, does the stoop have a future in Philadelphia architecture?

I set out this spring to explore whether stoop culture was a fading memory of Philadelphia’s civic past. I needed to learn the history of stoops, how development has modified or eliminated them, and what stoops mean to residents today. Along the way, I spoke to city planners, a preservationist, an artist and, of course, stoop-sitters in Philadelphia’s neighborhoods. The answers, I found, were more complex than I imagined.

What defines a stoop, you may ask? It depends on who you talk to. A stoop either has to be wide enough to fit three kids, or two adults and a bag of groceries, or two girlfriends, one bottle of wine and a cheese plate, or wide enough to fit everything you’re selling in tomorrow’s stoop sale. Some residents won’t even refer to them as stoops — they simply call them “the steps.”

The word is derived from the old Dutch word stoep, meaning a small porch with seats or benches, according to Nicoline van der Sijs’ Cookies, Coleslaw, and Stoops: The Influence of Dutch on the North American Languages. The Dutch, who colonized New York, built stoops in front of their houses so they could sit outside in the evening. The custom spread and the meaning of the word expanded to include any small porch, veranda, or entrance stairway at a house door.

Reflecting the simplicity of the city’s Quaker heritage and English influence, Philadelphia’s earliest town houses often featured brick or stone steps leading up to the first floor, which was raised to allow for windows and entrances to cellars, according to Mark Reinberger and Elizabeth McLean’s The Philadelphia Country House: Architecture and Landscape in Colonial America. A historic stoop of note that remains intact is that of underground railroad operators William and Letitia Still, who lived at 625 S. Delhi Street near Bella Vista. While the home no longer has its 19th-century red brick facade, its three original marble steps remain, a living testament to Philadelphia’s rich abolitionist history.

Therefore, stoops are not simply a place of gathering in the present day. They’re a window into the past in a city with more than half of its homes built before 1950, per the 2019 American Community Survey. I’ve wondered how so many old stoops, in houses sometimes more than a century old, have survived for this long. The answer lies in their construction.

Patrick Grossi is the director of advocacy at the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, an organization that promotes the protection of historic properties in the region. Though he’s self-admittedly no expert on stoops, he’s a trained public historian with an interest in urban planning and the built environment.

At the turn of the 19th century, “a sea” of single-family residences were built in Philadelphia, following a consistent template that typically featured a prominent stoop, Grossi says. During a time when aluminum and concrete weren’t widely available, those homes benefited from being built with sturdier materials like stone and masonry that were more abundant and cheaper compared to today. “You have thousands upon thousands of houses, right next to each other, and this meeting place, as you’ve called it, out front of all of them” he says. “Even the stone that might have been used over 100 years ago stood the test of time.”

The city’s stoops have lasted this long. But with Philadelphia significantly gentrifying, it’s anyone’s guess whether these icons will survive the wave of new developments. For the ones that are torn down, it’s unclear if their replacements will support the culture.

Radiyah, 21, and Tony Hennie, 40, enjoy takeout food on their Brewerytown steps.

As with any issue around development, the question of whether stoops are on the way out is a complicated one, and involves a somewhat complex set of questions about zoning and construction requirements. Sarah Adamo is the Legislative Affairs Manager and Zoning Administrator for the Department of Licenses & Inspections. In her role, she works with the City Council to implement bills, like construction taxes or permit requirements, that the legislative body approves. She’s careful not to say there are, officially, fewer stoops being added to new homes. But in her own experience, she’s noticed a decrease, and there’s a few reasons that could explain why.

The first is changed accessibility regulations around home construction. Older stoops were not designed with the needs of people with disabilities in mind. Absent an expensive lift or ramp, a resident who uses a wheelchair would have a difficult time getting into a stoop-bearing home. In their paper “Focusing on Disability and Access in the Built Environment,” Rob Imrie and Marion Kumar call this “design apartheid”: our cities are not built to accomodate people of different body types. In line with national accessibility requirements created in the 1990s, new multi-family properties, which are becoming more common in Philadelphia, must have an accessible entrance, meaning the door must be level with the sidewalk or the property must have a ramp leading to it.

Philadelphia’s 2012 zoning code overhaul, aimed at making neighborhoods more walkable and allowing residents to increase the size of their homes, may also play a role in stoop construction. The new code increased the height limitation of most row homes from 35 feet with a maximum of three stories to 38 feet with no limitation on the number of stories. “It allowed developers to fit four stories into that 38 feet height limit, and the only way that you can do that is if your first floor is very low,” Adamo says. Hence, if your first floor is at ground level, there’s no need for a stoop.

Additionally, developers are increasingly concerned with damaging next-door homes during excavation. Dig too deep into the ground without being careful, and adjacent walls start to fall down. Shoddy next-door construction in Philadelphia has resulted in several accidents trapping contractors in rubble and forcing residents to flee their homes. The result, Adamo says, is that some developers will dig as little as possible and build basements partially above-ground. A raised basement means a raised first floor, hence a high set of stairs not conducive to neighborly gossip.

Between the changed accessibility requirements, rewritten zoning code and excavation risks, forgoing the stoop is “absolutely” a cost-saving measure for developers, Adamo says. In her view, the chances of stoops making a resurgence in new developments are low. “But that’s just me, and my love for air conditioning, and my love for my backyard,” she says.

Paula Brumbelow Burns is the Director of Legislation at the Philadelphia City Planning Commission. Part of her role is to work with City Council on zoning and development legislation before they become law. She’s not seen a significant decrease of stoops in new homes — rather, she believes there’s been a change in stoop culture, in part due to air conditioning. “If I had a home in 1920, and it was summer, why would I sit outside on my stoop,” Brumbelow asked, rhetorically. “It gets hot indoors because I don’t have air conditioning.”

Brumbelow lives in Point Breeze, a neighborhood where people continue to sit on their stoops. She sees her neighbors sitting outside on their porches and having barbecues in front of their homes. To her, it’s not the architecture that’s changed. It’s the culture of a younger generation that grew up in suburban environments with garages and back patios that offered less opportunities to talk with neighbors. “That youth of the ‘80s and ‘90s are now buying homes in the city,” Brumbelow says. “I don’t know if they know how to interact when they come into the city where there’s older residents that are still sitting out on their stoops.”

She may have a point. My generation has grown up talking to each other on Twitter and in coffeeshops and beer gardens. But we’re not as used to interacting with the folks next door.

Andrew Grzybowski, 38, sits with his family and neighbor on their stoops in Brewerytown.

Kaitlin Pomerantz is deeply familiar with stoops. In 2017, she created On the Threshold, a public art project honoring salvaged stoops from every corner of the city, in conjunction with Monument Lab, a Philadelphia-based public art and history organization. Looking at the “rampant” redevelopment taking place in Philadelphia, Pomerantz recovered a dozen stoops from demolition sites that would otherwise be destroyed and put them on display in Washington Square. Their constructions ranged from marble to Pennsylvania bluestone, brownstone, concrete and brick. Pomerantz feels the stoop is an important part of Philadelphia’s civic history, “a threshold between public and private space” that “in many ways functions as both a personal and a democratic public space.”

To some residents, that idea may feel like a fading memory. On a spring day in Mantua, I find Mark Williamson, 57, the lone stoop-sitter on his street. He remembers a time when everyone in his neighborhood socialized from porch to porch, but to him, the block has become a ghost town. “With the pandemic thing, people will just rarely come out,” Williamson says. The development hasn’t helped. Attached to the new apartments down the street are balconies but no stoops. People don’t come out on those either, he says.

William Lloyd, 70, remembers a different era of stoop culture too, recalling a time when everyone on his Brewerytown block came out and scrubbed down their steps. People in his neighborhood used to gather and congregate on one person’s stoop to converse. But in his view, the younger generation comes and goes as they please.

With some younger residents I speak with, however, the notion of stoop culture remains alive and strong. I find Andrew Grzybowski, 38, on his Brewerytown stoop with his wife and two children. As I’m speaking to him, his neighbor Michelle Baymore joins us on the steps, which I learn is a frequent occurrence for the group. Grzybowski loves to wave to passersby and wishes more people on his street would stop and talk with him. “It’s a good compromise, right, it’s your stoop and you can invite anybody that you want to sit and talk longer, be there, interact with you a little bit more,” he says.

In Fishtown, I speak to Nikki Ferenz, 38, who’s sitting on her steps with a glass of white wine. The stoop has had special significance to her during the COVID-19 pandemic as a space that’s her own where she can watch people go by. It’s also a meeting place for her and her neighbor across the alleyway. For Rana Iqbal, 35, his Point Breeze stoop is a place to relax and feel at home while talking to his neighbors, he says. To John Staiger, 53, his Fishtown steps are where he can watch his neighbors and “keep an eye on things” in the neighborhood.

Stoop-sitting is a statement of harmony with the city environment. It’s an act of preserving a tradition as old as Philadelphia itself. During a time when we feel disconnected from each other amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s a safer space we can share for conversations over glasses of wine and takeout.

To Radiyah Hennie, it represents the history and family of her neighborhood.

“To me,” she says, “this stoop is everything.”

Photos by Colin Evans

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