How the Stoop and the Sidewalk Helped New Yorkers Stay Sane


    Impromptu concerts from the fire escape. Food relief efforts staged on the sidewalk in front of a church. Friends spread out on the stoop and drinking tallboys. As the city reopens, New Yorkers emerging from quarantine might feel a bit nostalgic for the socially distant bonds they formed outside their homes. From the first days of the lockdown in April, through the advent of legal drinking in front of restaurants, to protests in the streets for racial justice, The Times collected stories of how neighbors across the five boroughs handled the shutdown and, at times, came together.

    I spent most of last summer on the stoop of my retired neighbor Richie, who would be out front most mornings as I — the professor on vacation — would pass by with my dog.

    “Come by for a beer later,” he’d suggest. And I always would.

    The school year ended our ritual. Coronavirus brought it back.

    Richie has a wraparound front terrace with benches and plants alongside his stoop, but I sit on a stool on the sidewalk now. Another neighbor, Jim, always joins us at 5 p.m. sharp.

    We greet those who pass, chat with other neighbors, and check in with Walter, the letter carrier. With a view of the harbor in the distance, we talk about the news and the things we appreciate, like being alive in our blessed city, while we watch the sun set behind Lady Liberty. — Andrew Cotto, Greenwood Heights, Brooklyn

    I live in the Bronx right by the Bruckner Expressway, which is also on the flight path for La Guardia Airport. In the early days, it was eerie watching the planes go by fairly regularly. As the lockdown took hold, the sirens were nonstop. It has been both disconcerting and strangely reassuring to see the truck traffic remain relatively steady — Port Morris is a largely industrial neighborhood.

    Capitalism doesn’t stop, and neither does the air pollution here, but it’s our normal, and I guess it beats the sirens. I wonder how many trucks carry food or supplies into Manhattan, and I’m reminded that expressways are Robert Moses’s legacy to the South Bronx, a largely Latino and black area that has already borne the brunt of a pandemic that has everything to do with the air we breathe.

    We are mostly Puerto Rican on our block, so I can tell it’s a nice day outside when I hear the neighbors joking in Spanglish or salsa playing.

    Today someone was fixing a car, someone else let the dog out, then the young motorcyclists paid us their usual Sunday visit, fleeting shadows under the light from the mattress factory across the street. Randalls Island, with its armies of joggers, is just down the road, yet it feels a world away. There are few of us, but when the music drowns out the expressway, I tell myself that maybe we’ll have summer in New York City after all. — Urayoán Noel, Port Morris, the Bronx

    I live on the second floor of a building on Central Park West and have had numerous friends stop by my window for a Rapunzelian chat. A terrific decorator named Brian McCarthy was a fun one. Also, I waved to a friend with her husband, about to walk across the park to Mt. Sinai to give birth (It was a boy.)

    A work colleague visits the most regularly after his bike rides around the Central Park peripherique. Our neighbor shouts when she’s out walking her dogs. My father even came on my birthday and stood in the rain. I threw down an umbrella. — Charles Curkin, Upper West Side, Manhattan

    The physical separation of water between Staten Island and the city can make you feel extra close. A couple next door, Joe and Lucille, remind me of my own long-gone parents, their necessary distance from their own children tugging at my heart.

    The other day, I called to see if they needed anything and half-joked not to ask for toilet tissue. Later that afternoon, I found on my stoop a six-pack of toilet paper and two fat rolls of paper towels. When my phone rang, it was Joe on the other end: “We left you a little present because we had extra.” — Amy Zavatto, St. George, Staten Island

    The Bronx was silent. Usually I could hear the smack talk of men wrapping up their domino games, or bachata playing loudly from the bodega. But the bodega owners had stopped allowing late night hangouts.

    Inside my building, people helped each other. My neighbor Bianka Medina, an M.T.A. employee and a baker, brought my family meals. My mother visited neighbors, asking who needed what before she went to the supermarket. As for the children, Bianka’s 5-year-old daughter went around the building with a tray of Easter eggs and treats on Easter Sunday. Of course the tray included a large Purell bottle. — Elizabeth Duluc, University Heights, the Bronx

    I could not remember the last time I heard a voice in the hallway or met someone on the stoop. Of the 20 apartments in my tenement, a phantom few seem inhabited. Street-facing windows were dark at night. Departures had been hurried, given the pyramid of unclaimed packages in the foyer. My neighbors could have vanished by the Rapture for all I knew.

    When the 7 o’clock cheer for front-line workers started, I felt more connected, however anonymously, to two women in the tenement across the street. They raised their windows to whoop each night and taped up a handwritten sign facing our building, asking, HOW YOU DOIN’?

    The day John Prine died, they blared his music. Another night, Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” pealed out. Then, those women’s windows went dark.

    The absence made me crane my neck for kinship elsewhere. That’s when I heard the strains of an electric guitar playing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Jimi Hendrix-style. — Julie Besonen, East Village, Manhattan

    In my neighborhood in Queens, there is a yellow townhouse. Every day, the men who live on the block gather there to drink beer and chain smoke on the front patio. A couple of them wear masks, though most of them don’t bother. Their piece of sidewalk is littered with butts in the morning.

    A few years ago this house was a problem. When I walked by, I would get catcalled; sometimes I’d cross over to the other side of the street just to avoid it.

    One day, fed up, I walked up to the main culprit and shook his hand — this was long before coronavirus. I told him my name, and asked him to stop. After that, whenever I saw him, he would wave at me and say hello.

    Recently I passed by and didn’t see anyone at the house. The whole street was quiet. Maybe that’s it, I thought. Maybe one of them got sick. I lowered my head and kept walking.

    But the next day they were at it again, laughing and drinking and playing music. As I walked by wearing my mask, I waved. One of them looked up and shouted, “Keep the corona away!” Then he added, laughing, “But have a Heineken.” — Sasha von Oldershausen, Jamaica, Queens

    David Rodriguez has known his father’s neighbors for more than 30 years. It’s a block of retired police officers, firefighters, and nurses.

    In early May, he visited to work on his dad’s car, and worried neighbors came over to chat. “They saw the grass growing and the mail piling up,” Mr. Rodriguez said, “so they feared the worst.”

    He reassured them his father was “watching Netflix and walking on his treadmill” in Miami, where he has been stranded since lockdown.

    David, who is an EMT, is currently working at a Covid testing site. But why work indoors, asked a retired firefighter across the street, when you could be having fun in an ambulance?

    “I’m 50, I can’t be carrying people down five flights of stairs,” David told him. “He still thinks I’m 20 years old.” — Eveline Chao, Oakwood Heights, Staten Island

    Barbecues, quinceañeras, baby showers and baptisms. Evening chats on lawn chairs along the sidewalk while the children played in the street. That was life in Joel Salguero’s building, where he has been the superintendent for 15 years, before the coronavirus. Nowadays, he said, the residents stay behind closed doors.

    Many of his neighbors are undocumented Latinos who lost their jobs at the start of the pandemic and are now working part-time, he said. Mr. Salguero collects rent for all 40 units; only a few of the tenants have been able to pay in full.

    Several residents also got sick.

    Neighbors are helping one another, as they are afraid to go to the hospital. When a woman in her 70s who lost her job as a nanny grew ill, they took turns leaving food by her front door.

    One of them was the super’s wife, Alejandra Salguero. A nanny herself who commutes all the way to Shelter Island, Ms. Salguero, during her time off, waits in line at a nearby church that’s been distributing food, and brings a bag to her older neighbor. She has also given her money.

    For undocumented people, she said, “there’s no stimulus package.” — Fabrice Robinet, Sunset Park, Brooklyn

    The mood was tense at the Red Hook Houses, the second largest low-income housing project in the city, said Karen Blondel, an organizer and longtime resident. Because of the Hurricane Sandy renovations that still aren’t finished, there was no safe space to socialize, so residents kept to themselves. They were very much on edge.

    And then the pineapples arrived.

    A shipment of 20,000 from Costa Rica to be exact, donated by the Red Hook Container Terminal down the street. They asked Ms. Blondel to help pass them around.

    “My friend Charlene got a U-Haul truck and came over to load up,” Ms. Blondel said. The pineapples were delivered to nonprofits and low-income housing, including the Red Hook Houses.

    People responded with photos of themselves drinking Piña Coladas and pineapple tea.

    “It was the perfect fruit for the pandemic,” Ms. Blondel said. “It lifted me, and it lifted other people. — Lisa M. Collins, Red Hook, Brooklyn

    Anthony Ramirez felt kind of queasy about plunking the Yamaha Motif XS8 on his family porch. “What if the neighbors get mad at me?” he recalled thinking. “And police come?”

    A couple months in, “Tony the piano player” enjoys near-celebrity status on his block in the Bronx, where he lives in a two-story apartment building his parents bought 36 years ago.

    He plays every morning at 11 (“had to be after seniors’ privileged time at Costco and ShopRite”), and he takes requests. Drake is a Taylor Avenue favorite; so is George Michael. “Adele definitely gets people singing, though.”

    The boingy baselines Tony uses have a certain, irresistible “Seinfeld” theme song quality — even the letter carrier takes a break to listen. There is no tip jar, so neighbors have taken to leaving bottles of wine on Anthony’s porch. — Paige Darrah, Parkchester, the Bronx

    Three times a week, the Chinatown Block Watch assembles on Mott Street. Karlin Chan formed the group to “serve as a visible deterrent,” he said, to the recent rise in hate crimes against Asians.

    On a recent afternoon, about a dozen volunteers headed up Mott Street, ducking into businesses to give out fliers that said “No face mask/No entry” in English and Chinese.

    Richie Cheung had joined the group for the first time that day. “I feel great, man; I feel like I’m doing something for the community,” he said. “It’s good for the soul.” — Eveline Chao, Chinatown, Manhattan

    Across the street, my neighbor Christina Crespo has been chalking inspirational messages on her stoop. She and her children put out a quote request box for passers-by.

    From my window, I’ve watched people stop to snap pics, and after each rainfall, a new quote always appears. “I started to follow these beautiful female poets and writers of color on Instagram and I was so touched by their words,” said Christina, who is raising her children in her grandparents’ home. “I wanted to spread that bit of magic with everyone who walked by.” — Marj Kleinman, Boerum Hill, Brooklyn

    My neighbors, a group of young fit dudes, have taken to pulling out lawn chairs, cracking open beers, and hanging out in shorts and flip-flops in front of their building. It’s a kind of polite and respectful Midtown frat party.

    In April, they took to the street to run sprint drills and play long-distance catch with a football. The backdrop for their recreation happened to be one of the most interesting buildings in Manhattan: Philip Johnson’s 1950 Rockefeller Guest House, a Modernist masterpiece that is Johnson’s only private residence in New York City, hiding in plain sight on East 52nd Street.

    Watching them hang out in front of this little-known architectural marvel got me thinking about the importance we accord to certain things in New York, like luxury real estate, and how those values can look radically different at a time like this.

    As two of the guys aimlessly tossed a ball in front of the petite historic building the other day, the last line of the poem “Ozymandias” came to mind: “Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.” — Alex Vadukul, Midtown East, Manhattan

    My wife, Lu Zhang, had been trying to grow a plant from her grandfather’s backyard in Xi’an, China. It’s known for its medicinal properties, and it had been growing but not thriving. One morning our neighbor Ah Hua, originally from Fujian province, reached across the little railing that separates our balconies and handed my wife a full, lush version of the plant! Ah Hua, it turns out, had been pursuing the same goal, and her soil-fertilization techniques had paid off. They’ve been trading gardening tips since. — Herb Tam, Flushing, Queens

    Shortly after lockdown was announced, Mel’s Burger Bar removed its front windows and set up a well-stocked bar in there. The drinkers came quickly. Some wore masks, some smoked cigarettes, others brought their dogs. Soon other restaurants followed.

    This new social hour is happening at any hour of the day. People lean on cars or bikes, they sit on stoops or stair railings. Outdoor speakers push Elton John, Spin Doctors, and Jonas Brothers. The lure is seductive.

    One warm evening in May, I watched a group of 40- and 50-somethings singing on a crosswalk island — past tipsy but not quite drunk. No one was wearing a mask. Their collective attitude seemed to be: “We’ve earned this.” — Alix Strauss, Upper East Side, Manhattan

    The grand steps at Brooklyn’s Borough Hall have long provided a public stoop for all Brooklynites, who come to gather, eat lunch, and protest.

    These steps also lead to the current home of Brooklyn’s borough president, Eric Adams, who moved into the municipal building at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak. He regularly shares short social media videos on health, self-care, mindfulness and empowerment from the foot of his futon, a short commute from his desk.

    “We are using Borough Hall as a command center to coordinate the borough’s response to Covid-19 and the protests gripping Brooklyn now,” Mr. Adams said.

    He has been on the ground each day, distributing meals, delivering masks and engaging with protesters. “Covid-19 didn’t put other crises in the borough on hold,” he said. “If anything, it magnified issues like lack of affordable housing, poverty, food insecurity, and so much more.”

    He will often join his constituents on the steps, and has especially made his presence known during the protests.

    A retired N.Y.P.D. captain, Adams knows the danger of unchecked policing. As a teenager, he and his brother were badly beaten by police officers in Queens. This incident motivated him to get involved with public service. In 1995 he co-founded “100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care,” an advocacy group that speaks out against police brutality and racial profiling.

    In 2013, he became the first African-American borough president of Brooklyn.

    Borough Hall faces Cadman Plaza Park, the site of the June 4 memorial for George Floyd, which was organized by his brother, Terrence Floyd, a Brooklyn resident. — Marj Kleinman, Downtown Brooklyn

    Credit…John Degen

    Grove is one of those quaint West Village streets that on normal days often gets overrun by tourists (“Look, it’s the ‘Friends’ building!”). But these are far from normal days, so the neighborhood has been getting back some of its “locals only” vibe.

    The routine goes something like this: shut down the computer at 6, grab a tallboy of Modelo from the deli on Christopher, head over to the stoop, then get ready for the parade.

    So many dogs! But in the current dynamic, it’s the actual owners doing their own walking (“Oh, you’re Caleb’s mom!”), and no one gives you the side-eye or tries to hurry along when you reach out to pet Layla or Mowgli.

    Friends from the neighborhood often stroll by to download the latest news (MeMe reopened, someone saw Artie doing jumping jacks by the river, the Radio Bar crew is heading over to the rally at noon).

    And people linger, whether for a beer, a smoke, a gab about this, a gab about that. We’re all in this together, you know. We didn’t leave our awesome ’hood. It’s nice here, and for now, it’s all ours. — Parrish Griggs, West Village, Manhattan

    Two neighboring buildings on 139th Street in the Bronx, one that has not had gas since October, went on rent strike in April. A local restaurant, La Morada, showed solidarity by donating meals to the residents. Eventually, one building pulled out of the rent strike, and Black Lives Matter took center stage. Recently, 139th Street became the backdrop for peaceful protests. La Morada, meanwhile, continues its food donation efforts. — Dakota Santiago, Mott Haven, the Bronx

    Every night, the residents of 28th Street, some of them front-line workers, check in with one another.

    The physical therapist recounts her relentless stints at the hospital, where her team helps rotate Covid patients on ventilators; the doctor across the street hands her a loaf of his homemade sourdough. She offers him fresh-picked rhubarb.

    “The pandemic and protests have changed our relationship,” said Brendan Fay, an L.G.B.T.Q. activist who lives on the block. “The word ‘neighbor’ has taken on a new meaning. We now greet each other with more than a polite hello; we’ve crossed a line with each other.”

    One of the 28th Street gang recently suggested that it may be time to stop the ritual salutes. Mr. Fay won’t hear of it.

    “Among us, there’s a woman whose daughter-in-law is fighting Covid-19 and has pneumonia,” he said. “She told me this helps her get through the day. I don’t want to see this end; perhaps it will grow and evolve into something bigger.” — Nancy A. Ruhling, Astoria, Queens

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