RED-FACED AND RACCOON-EYED, the neighbors are coming.
After Labor Day, scores of them will pack up their tanning oil and towels, pile into their cars and wave goodbye to their Jersey Shore summer homes. As they drag their sandy beach chairs and dripping coolers up the front steps and into storage for the winter, will they wonder about all the stories they’ve missed?
The stories lived and shared by neighbors who prefer to spend their summers sitting on a stoop, shooting a non-salty breeze.
As Labor Day brings back the part-time city dwellers, the fall-to-springers, we reflect on a summer spent lounging on Philadelphia stoops, and what the future may hold for this city institution.
Michele McDonnell, 48, of Passyunk, relishes the hours spent on her stoop, talking to neighbors or friendly passersby, neglecting the groceries she just bought.
“I’ll be here all day,” she said, keys jingling in her hand but no inclination to move toward the door. “My milk will go bad.”
Combing the city’s stoops over the last few months, we found dozens of groups just like McDonnell’s. Groups that sit five or 10 people deep on a single step, mingling nightly with the same relatives and neighbors they have known for decades.
Many of them lamented: It ain’t what it used to be.
"When you walked out of your house every night, everyone sat outside," McDonnell said. "When I walked by every night to go to my grandparents’, you said hello to everybody. Because that's what you did. When you walk back you say goodnight to everybody."
But these kids today. She shakes her head.
"Today's generation," she flexed her thumbs, "their faces are all in their phones."
Are McDonnell and her fellow stoop-sitting purists right?
About the cellphone part, certainly. But we also found plenty of examples of younger generations and newcomers to the city who have adopted the stoop-sitting tradition McDonnell so loves.
Like the diverse group of young urbanites in Chinatown -- a neighborhood that tends more toward isolation -- who gather weekly. They sat there on a hot June evening, talking presidential politics and gay rights over a bowl of homemade salsa.
Or the Temple student with a nose ring who finally shook hands with his neighbor of nearly three years.
“I never introduced myself, but like, I see you guys here all the time and it's like, this is a nice block, which is why I live here,” he said, offering only his first name: “I’m Blaise.”
His two neighbors -- long-timers who see a lot of kids come and go with nary a word -- were both surprised and welcoming.
“I used to think he was weird, boy,” Demitris Hopkins said after the student walked away. “But, you know, you can't judge people.”
Then there were the people who found their stoops, and their stoop crews, in slightly new places. A running group that aids the blind. A group of men who spend their after-hours digging in the dirt for Colonial-era treasures. The Post Offices, the bar stools, the tailgates.
That’s the thing about stoops. They’re universal, a symbol of the community. You’ll find them in fancy Society Hill mansions and crumbling West Philly rowhouses. Most of the city’s houses have them, and they generally serve the same purpose: to connect, to build, to serve as the face of the neighborhood.
But McDonnell is right that fewer people now are doing their gathering in public, right there curbside. They have too many other alternatives.
"We got TV. We didn't have TV years ago,” she said. “We got cable now."
Not to mention, as Bobby Trama said in June, video games. And as Sonja Ar said in July, political conventions. And as Jennifer Childs said in August, air conditioning.
McDonnell picked up her grocery bag, and headed down the street.
"Whatever you call it," she said over her shoulder, "it ain't the same."
About this Series:
Some Philadelphians spend summers lounging down the Shore, and others spend it sitting on their Stoops. This weekly series, about the places and ways Philadelphians gather, aims to tell the kinds of summer stories started or shared among neighbors. These are city stories that perpetuate long traditions, or cast a wary eye toward new trends. These are your stories, which are quintessentially, and unapologetically, Philly.