By Arthur H. Gunther III
While very few Rocklanders of the 1940s and ‘50s -- in a rural county north of New York City -- used the word “stoop,” we understood what it was like to sit on porch steps. As in Gotham, where such was a major past time as well as educational and social opportunity, more than a neighborly nod was to be had.
My grandfather met his wife in 1920, sitting on his steps, across from the lady who would become my grandmother. In Spring Valley, where I largely grew up, the same couple had a house at 14 Ternure Ave. that included a small side porch, and every grandchild sat for a photograph. It was one of the places where I could day-dream.
In Hillcrest, my mother had conversation with her neighbor Irene almost every day in good weather, choosing the front steps to pass an hour or two. Irene was from Manhattan, and she told us how on hot summer nights the entire neighborhood would be out on their “stoops” to get some air but also to connect. A few feet away, their children would be bouncing a ball or jumping rope, and every parent was also the parent of each child in the take-care-of-each-other-neighborhood.
Some of that passed to the suburbs, too, as Gothamites moved out, though not every house had front steps, nor were the homes as close together, and neighborhoods were more anonymous. Eventually, any front step-sitting gave way to the backyard patios of the later 1950s and then the decks of the 1970s and now the outside “rooms” of 2012, with huge barbecues, fire pits, hard and soft landscaping and water features, almost oases apart from the world.
In an earlier Rockland, most homes had front porches, and swings on them. That was where grandmothers knitted, couples dated and everyone waited for the mailman. Those porches and their steps became observation posts for the passing scene, and as with the stoops of the cities, places to think things through or to share confidences over worries and fears, joys and dreams. Both past times provided emotional and social reinforcement and learning experiences.
In a world that seems more isolated and which since 2001 appears on edge, perhaps we could do with a few more porches, steps and stoops and some neighborly visits.