We’ve never stooped so low
We’ve never stooped so low
by Alison Barnet
Wednesday Sep 23, 2009
In the novel "The Late George Apley," a prominent businessman looks across a South End square, sees a man in shirt sleeves on the opposite stoop, and moves the next day. Several decades later, Apley’s head would have spun like a top at the number of improperly dressed men-and women-sitting on South End stoops. Some of today’s newcomers may have the same reaction, labeling stoop sitting déclassé, but it was a fine South End tradition, and many of us miss it. Unfortunately, sitting on our steps today watching dog walkers pick up poop and cell phone users titter away isn’t quite the same.
Back before decks, before AC, we used to sit out on our stoops and talk to each other, and every evening was like a block party. We had block parties, too, of course, as well as open houses (not to be confused with real estate showings). To our open houses, we often invited people we met on the stoop.
We collected interesting people as they came along, and boy!-did the South End have them. Since the stoops weren’t covered with flower pots back then, we could generally accommodate quite a crowd. A bottle of wine or other stimulant helped, and it didn’t matter what people wore. We mixed freely with just about everyone, including questionable characters, whose residence on our block made them one of us. We didn’t see the steps as private property, weren’t afraid someone would hose us off or call the police because we were trespassing. We belonged.
"The Old South End crossed social barriers," said a man who grew up at Cathedral Projects in the ’60s. "It was very beautiful really and went beyond seeing different kinds of people on the street. We went to their houses, we actually knew people." A lifelong South Ender cautions, however, that "the mix of the Old South End is not to be assumed." Not everyone was tolerant and racism entered in.
My own experience in the early ’70s, however, was like something out of Stevie Wonder: "Have we lived to see the promised land?" I’d come home from work to find my rainbow buddies already out on the stoop laughing and talking, and on many occasions I didn’t make it inside for hours. Up and down the street, groups sat out, tenants with landlords, children with grandparents, blacks with whites. When an older woman across the street, who had once run a day care, sat on her stoop, countless adults stopped to say, "You took care of me . . . or my brother . . . or my cousin." A couple mid-block did a variation on stoop sitting by socializing in their front yard at a table with an umbrella.
Stoop sitting was a fixture of the South End as a whole, some blocks more than others, especially in the ’40s and ’50s. One former South Ender remembers the largely Lebanese and Syrian blocks of Shawmut Avenue: "On summer nights at 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning, there would be half-a-dozen families out on the stoop with fruits, watermelon and drinks. It was very family-oriented." Looking down Shawmut in recent times, another old-timer sadly reflects, "There’s no life anymore."
Today’s street theatre couldn’t be more different. Although it may be true that more people are sitting out, they’re patrons of sidewalk cafés, where there is little mix. How compartmentalized by class and race we’ve become: a sidewalk café on one side of the street, Cathedral Projects and the Dollar-A-Bag grocery truck on the other!