Eight Steps Up
This essay is a part of unMUTE, a collection of pieces written by participants in the 2020 Design Writing and Research Summer Intensive Online.
I live behind the stoop. It’s the staircase I pass as I round the corner to my apartment, the English basement tucked under our brownstone. The occasional package left in the lobby above means trudging up and down its many steps. Beyond that, it’s easy not to give the stoop a second thought. It’s the appendage to our building, and I felt indifferent to it at best.
When the pandemic swept through, a switch was flipped. The fragility of public life became crushingly apparent. Limitations revealed truths. Perhaps most glaringly missing was the soft power of being a stranger among strangers—the exhilarating tension of the everyday. It was in this absence that I took to the stoop one morning. A sort of negotiation: a buffer from public space, a connection to the world.
My stoop is humble and un-delicate. Twelve clay-colored steps framed by wrought iron railings draw a straight line from the sidewalk to the building entrance. From this vantage point, eight steps up, I see my block for the first time—a familiar scene transformed and vividly alive. The banal, given time and space, becomes fascinating, profound even. There are dog walkers, slow walkers, fast walkers, fast talkers, phone talkers, couples, runners, cyclists, the B65 bus that carefully maneuvers around the double parker, and cars on their way to somewhere else. I listen desperately to every conversation blip that passes by, weaving together disjointed stories into one continuous plot. Meanwhile, a bird notices that I, too, am roosting in my nest and lands beside me with an urgent message. I wish I could speak bird. Dappled light shifts through the canopy of trees as the sunlight dims and then returns with even greater intensity. A gentle breeze rustles the leaves while the birdsong swells to a grand symphony. Pure, unfiltered, ASMR. Across the block, I see others sitting on their stoops, chatting with passersby and respectfully keeping their distance. In this moment, to be a stoop sitter feels like a radical proposition: home is beyond our four walls. It’s our street; it’s our neighborhood; it’s our city.
Stoop, derived from the Dutch word stoep, means “a small porch” or “staircase.” This dual definition is critical. As a staircase, it’s a means of transport; but as a porch, it becomes a spot to relax and convene. Popularized in New York in the nineteenth century, the stoop was said to give row houses the appearance of small castles. More pragmatically, the elevated entrance was created to withstand floods and provide a hygienic buffer from horse manure found at street level. In decades past, the stoop stood as a nexus of community. A hangout space where friends would trade gossip and recent happenings, children playing in the streets would be looked after, and the lifeblood of the neighborhood maintained. As urbanist, activist, and writer Jane Jacobs put it, the stoop supported “the intricate sidewalk ballet” of street life. While this tradition lives on in pockets of the city, in recent years, this sense of community has largely evaporated—it’s urgency sadly lost on fresh New York transplants. I think of the new glossy developments springing up around Manhattan and Brooklyn, a cold and more anonymous architecture, conspicuously designed without the surrounding neighborhood in mind—no stoops in sight.
unMUTE Group Statement
Take a moment to think about how strange a video chat is. You can see and hear someone, but all the nuance of body language is lost—flattened into two dimensions and reduced in resolution. Conversation starts and stops, unaided by technology cuts and lags. How do you even know when someone is about to speak?
Now take that single moment of video chat and multiply it by sixteen, each tiny square on the screen filled by a student hoping to mentally escape the 2020 pandemic.. Norms need to be created so that everyone feels comfortable contributing, and group dynamics have to be explicitly established so no ideas or experiences—indicated sometimes by only the slightest wave—go unshared.
On the surface, a large group video conversation seems unwieldy. It morphs into something entirely new when the meeting happens every weekday for two weeks, pressurized by rapid-fire lectures, readings, and assignments. It’s hard to imagine, but what if—in the midst of a global health crisis and nationwide protests over racial inequality—those sixteen people created bonds so deep and discovered things about themselves so profound that they left the meeting changed? What if they wrote prose so revealing you stole a glimpse into who they are?
If you’re curious, please unMUTE.