A Step Above: Stoop-sitting in Baltimore

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, May 16, 2012



Back in the late 1980s, a New York architect told The New York Times that Baltimore’s stoops are “without balusters, without railings, just three crisp marble steps.” This prompted the Times’ scribe to call Mobtown’s stoops “pure and parsimonious” compared to Gotham’s, which grace the fronts of brownstones and apartment buildings and are “invariably inviting wherever one finds them.”

“Balusters” are also known as “stair sticks,” and, along with the railings they support, they take up valuable stoop-sitting space. Baltimore’s “parsimonious” stoops may be small, this being a city of narrow rowhouses, not grand brownstones, but they are every bit as “invariably inviting” as New York’s. Invited or not, people stoop-sit in Baltimore. It’s one of the city’s hallmarks, up there with steamed crabs, beehive hairdos, and Bmore club music.

The famous Baltimore stoops of white marble may not be as bright and shiny as in generations past, when they were bleached and scrubbed immaculate. (Maybe that’s what the Times meant by “pure.”) Where they still remain, though, they are kept relatively clean by the fidgety butts that sit on them. And there are plenty of those, thanks to the ever-unfolding theatrics of the street. Stoop-sitting and storytelling are kissing cousins for good reason: Stories are told on the stoops, and the stoops, over time, tell stories.

On the leisure scale, stoop-sitting beats sitting inside watching TV and runs about even with hanging out in the backyard, but it falls short of actually going out and doing something. Unlike those other options, though, it has an added, communal benefit: more eyes, ears, and noses to observe the goings-on. In theory, people behave better when others are watching.

The social qualities of stoop-sitting are not unique to Baltimore, of course, and, since the U.S. Census doesn’t plumb the subject, gauging Baltimore’ s per-capita stoop-sitting rank isn’t an option. But those stoops, baluster-less and lined up like teeth, make for such fine front-row seats to the streets that, in many neighborhoods, people in large numbers risk random arrest or violence to sit on them. And that, perhaps, is the best measure of how “invariably inviting” they are.

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