In January 2020, a magazine for a boutique hotel chain in the Pacific Northwest commissioned me to write an essay about stoops. Then the pandemic happened and the magazine folded. The essay never saw the light of day, but I liked it, so I’m putting it here.
Since 2008, I’ve lived in the upper 9th Ward—a pastiche of bargeboard cottages and graffitied warehouses hemmed by train tracks. It’s ground zero for gentrification in New Orleans. It’s also where my great-aunt Hazel and great-uncle Noisy lived before decamping to the suburbs. Each morning, Noisy walked to his job at a Brutalist Navy base overlooking the Industrial Canal levee and its swaths of green-gold grass. On weekends, my dad and Pawpaw drove down from Baton Rouge to visit and buy loaves of hot French bread from Binders Bakery.
Pawpaw was master of the neighborly wave, offered one to everybody he encountered while wending his pickup truck through narrow, pockmarked streets. I imagine he extended that greeting to clusters of men, women, and children gathered on New Orleans’ stoops as well.
Especially then, in the 1960s, before air conditioning sucked everyone indoors for half the year, stoops were more than just a short set of stairs leading to a narrow concrete slab. Positioned somewhere between one’s private and public worlds, they were places to congregate, thrones from which neighborhood kingpins dispensed magisterial greetings to passersby. And when second lines and Mardi Gras parades rolled past, stoops became balcony seating for the greatest free show on Earth.
In short, stoops are sites of shimmering liminality that mirror New Orleans itself. “The stoop was a gathering place,” said Michael Verderosa, who lives in a stoop-rich New Orleans ward and has a master’s degree in architectural history from Tulane University, “a place to sit with family or friends, engage in conversation with neighbors and keep an eye on children as they played in the street.”
Stoops aren’t unique to New Orleans, nor are the easy communions they invite. Many cities with narrow streets and a lack of front yards, such as Baltimore and Philadelphia, have streets with stoops, explains Karen Kingsley, professor emerita of Tulane University School of Architecture. “And in the days before air conditioning, they served as private, cooler outdoor space.”
These academic perspectives are consistent with those of people hailing from cities with dense, urban cores and my own family’s experiences. The oldest of seven children, my paternal grandmother was born on a sharecropper’s farm in Arkansas. Their house was a squat, square assembly of four rooms. On hot nights, Mawmaw slept outside on what she described as a porch. But I’ve been to that house, and it was a stoop. When I sat on those concrete stairs at night, though, it felt like I was leaning from the prow of a ship, into the susurrus of hay fields and the mystery of an unlidded rural starscape.
That house burned to the ground in the early 1990s, along with my grandmother’s brand-new spectator pumps, which may have caused her the most pain. The stoop was all that remained. Three somber concrete steps leading nowhere. Or leading somewhere. Back into all that sky or down into the earth’s patient maw. Stoops go both ways.
I didn’t know at the time, but this stoop was a harbinger of another disaster that would visit my life. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina and the federal levee failures ripped more than 1,800 people from this earthly plane and at least that many homes from their foundations. Especially in the lower 9th Ward, stoops without houses loomed large as headstones on block after peopleless block.
But that was a long time ago, even if it doesn’t always feel like it. Today, when I walk around my neighborhood, I see stoops hung with Mardi Gras beads, studded with potted plants, ashtrays, and cat food bowls. Signs of life. And sometimes, I see people out there reading the newspaper or drinking wine. When that happens, I raise my hand and tell them hello. It’s obvious, based on their response, who’s a recent transplant and who’s not. Long-time locals are masters of the Pawpaw wave, while newcomers, accustomed to the hustle and bustle of a different place, keep their eyes down on the cracked sidewalk.
But I can’t not greet my neighbors, even when I can tell they’d rather not engage. The habit is too ingrained. So, I persist. Usually, they say hello back. And sometimes, on those rarest and most special occasions, they invite you in.
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