One of Josie’s smaller photo albums was a souvenir from the 1939 New York World’s Fair. We do not know if the Serrapede family went to the Fair or if this album was a gift from a relative or friend. Our research for this posting provides a time frame for the photos as being taken sometime between the Spring and Summer seasons of 1939 and 1940 since the Fair ran both of those years.
For this posting we feature photos of Emily and Gerry that provide good examples of a well known feature of Brooklyn life that is still alive today. There are many ways of describing it. Two of the simplest phrases are stoop life or stoop culture. Stoops are not only a part of the houses in many neighborhoods, they also are places where children play and neighbors socialize.
Please note that stoop life and stoop culture were first noted by English tourists to Old New York as far back as when the Dutch first established their communities in Manhattan and the boroughs. Travel journals from the early 19th century describe how residents of Brooklyn enjoyed a very lively and informal social life from the comfort of the stoops in front of their own homes. Stoop life and stoop culture continue today in many communities throughout New York City and the boroughs. The differences are in the expression it takes within each community’s cultural make-up.
We’ve narrowed our
focus in this posting to the stoop life and stoop culture of the
Italian-American community during the 1930s and 1940s. The discussion Uncle Sammy and I had includes
our memories of the stoop culture in the 1940s and 1950s. If you are interested in delving deeper into
the topic please see the links under Additional
Reading which follows the Resources section at the end of
this posting. There are also two blog
postings about stoop life listed in the Resources
Josie Muro came to Brooklyn, New York around 1928-1929. She lived with her Aunt Elisa and Uncle Vincenzo Scotti until her marriage to Sam Serrapede in 1930. Their daughter Emily Leatrice was born in 1931. Their second child, Gerry, was born in 1938.
Josie and Sam were:
–Sammy’s Mom and Dad
–EmilyAnn’s maternal Grandparents
World’s Fair 1939
The symbols of the 1939 New York World’s Fair appear on the cover of this photo album. The sphere was called the Perisphere and the tall, three sided obelisk was the Trylon. Their clean, simple lines were meant to convey a futuristic feeling to the zone in the Fair where they were located. The theme for this zone was “The World of Tomorrow”. Inside the Perisphere was an exhibit of how the ideal city would look 100 years into the future. In 2039 the urban centers would resemble the Demacracity of the exhibit. The cities would be places of parkland, industry and residence all in harmony with each other. This exhibit was very uplifting and popular with a public weary of the poverty of The Great Depression.
The 1939 New York World’s Fair was located on the site of the modern day Flushing Meadows Park. Today the Unisphere from the 1964 World’s Fair remains on the site. The Trylon and Perisphere of the 1939 World’s Fair were made of a total of 40 million tons of steel. They were torn down and the metal used as part of America’s effort when we entered WWII.
Brooklyn Living: The Stoop
Suburban houses have their green lawns and small town homes have porches. The urban dwellers of New York whether they are low income or middle class often have a stoop in front of their house. It consists of a series of wide steps leading to an elevated front entrance. At the foot of the steps is an area of concrete marked off from the street by a gate for some houses or just a fence around the small garden at the side. If there is extra space near the garden or the stoop, there might be a small bench where the residents of the house can sit when the weather is good.
Many multi-family dwellings of the early to mid-20th century consisted of railroad rooms with little light and air circulation when the rooms were situated away from the front and back of the building. These types of tenements and flats were constructed before the building code required a certain number of windows in each apartment build after the early 1900s. Tenants of such buildings enjoyed sitting on their stoops or bringing out their kitchen chairs to enjoy the good weather on a fine morning or evening. Sitting on the stoop gave them the chance to:
- Watch their children.
- Keep an eye on what the neighbors were doing.
- Take note of anything unusual.
- See if new people were coming around the area.
- Ask after each other.
- Discuss topical events in the news or in their personal lives.
Children created games such as “stoop ball” that could be played in front of the house or apartment building. This game was very popular in Brooklyn as it did not require any equipment other than a rubber ball thrown against the steps of the stoop. It was not necessary for the players to go to a schoolyard.
Above all “stoop life” and “stoop culture” kept the neighbors in touch with each other and fostered a sense of closeness. It also provided an approved way to get out of the confines of the multi-family dwellings and enjoy some socializing in a manner that did not cause any hardship in terms of spending money or going a long distance from home. Stoop culture was also a part of life in working class neighborhoods where brownstones and smaller multi-family dwellings existed. Even owners of one family homes enjoyed sitting out on their stoops and socializing with their neighbors.
The Serrapede family lived at 1166 65th Street from around 1935 to 1941. This multi-family building does not have a stoop but other houses on the block do. When a house or building did not have an actual stoop with steps to sit on, the residents put a bench outside or brought chairs out when they wanted to partake of stoop culture and stoop life. The entire focus was to get out and get in with what was going on in the neighborhood. So while 1166 65th Street was minus the steps, it did have a bench from which the residents could be part of the bigger stoop culture and stoop life on the block.
Emily and Gerry Serrapede 1939-1940: On the block and on the stoops along 66th Street
The presence of so many ads for Spinelli Co. made us wonder who the owners were. Even in this photo of Gerry on his tricycle you can sense that Spinelli had some kind of importance on the block or the community. Some quick research of the Federal Census records and The Brooklyn Daily Eagle led to the discovery that Peter Spinelli was a man of many interests and a neighbor of the Serrapedes.
Spinelli Real Estate and Property Management
Peter Spinelli was the President of Spinelli Co., Inc., a real estate firm with offices at 1160 65th Street. He lived with his wife Martha and their 6 children at 1158 66th Street. Peter and Martha owned this two-family home valued at $10,000. Peter made a salary of $2500 in 1939. This placed his family in the middle-upper middle class.
In addition to the real estate business, Peter’s was involved in local politics. He founded the Peter Spinelli Democratic Club. He also enjoyed recognition as the parent of a child prodigy. His younger son Dominick was featured in an article that appeared in the December 2, 1931 edition of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. The writer was amazed at how 3 years old Dominick had a large vocabulary and the ability to spell many long words correctly. Dominick also exhibited a great deal of confidence when he said he planned on being a leader when he grew up!
Rose Marie Muro: From Wilmerding to Brooklyn
The earliest photo we have of Josie’s younger sister Rose comes from the “Memories New York 1939 World’s Fair” album. In this photo Rose is smartly dressed in a pretty white blouse, knee length flared skirt and white peep toe high heels with a bow in the front. She is sitting on the ledge at the side of the stoop of the house where the Serrapede family lived. We think that Rose was living and working in Brooklyn by this time. Everyone called her Rosie and that is the name we’ll use going forward. Like Josie, Rosie loved pretty clothing, styling her hair and dressing up.
Stoop life had certain unspoken rules. Women would sit on the ledges, benches or kitchen chairs brought outside. They never sat on the steps. Men of any age, boys and young girls could sit on the steps but when a girl got older it was not considered “lady like”.
The houses in
Wilmerding where the Muro family’s neighbors and relatives lived had gardens
and front porches. There were often
steps leading up from the sidewalk to the front door. But does that mean that Wilmerding had its
own variation of stoop culture and stoop life?
The geography was different from Brooklyn. The cobblestone streets and hills created a
environment different from the paved, flat streets and sidewalks of Brooklyn,
NY. We’d love to hear about what the
front porch life and front porch culture of Wilmerding was like during the
1930s onwards. So if any of our cousins
would like to share their memories with us we will feature this topic in a
On August 27, 2016 I went on walk to Dyker Heights. The purpose was to photograph the building where the Serrapede family lived in 1940. I also wanted to see if the homeowners in the Chinese-American community kept the stoops on the houses along 65th Street. The majority of the Italian-Americans in Dyker Heights began to disperse as the 1980s advanced. Now the Chinese-Americans and Mexican-Americans are the emerging members of the community.
Bay Ridge: A neighborhood of brownstones with the classic Brooklyn-style stoops
The homeowners in Bay Ridge appreciate the history of the community and their homes. Most restore their stoops when needed and keep the period appearance. In the early 20th century the Irish and Scandinavian immigrant communities were part of the Bay Ridge neighborhood. At that time it was a working class, blue collar area. Today it is home to upper class professionals in business and the medical profession.
Discussion with Uncle Sammy, Sunday, August 21, 2016, 11 – 11:30 a.m.
The 1939 New York World’s Fair
Uncle Sammy agrees with me that Josie, Sam, Emily and Gerry did not go to the Fair. Flushing Meadows Park is located in Queens, a borough that was not easily accessible from Brooklyn. Sam did not drive and the family did not own a car. The expense of travel limited the family to outings in Brooklyn which were well described by Emily whenever she shared family stories about Coney Island or neighborhoods in Brooklyn where relatives lived.
The only out of state travel we are certain that the family made was to Wilmerding, Pennsylvania. The expense of the train ticket and a gift for the relatives could be managed. There were no additional expenses to be counted for in terms of where the family ate and slept since the relatives always hosted the visit.
The Law Office of Charles Graham on 65th Street
It turns out that the office where Emily worked at her first job was the building on 65th Street that came right after the one which had the advertisements for Spinelli Real Estate. In this smaller building, on the ground floor, was the office of Charles Graham, Esq. We will feature Mr. Graham in the future when we cover Emily’s life after graduating high school. Uncle Sammy remembers passing by the office and tapping on the window when Emily was working the front desk.
1940s and 1950s
The Serrapede family moved to 66th Street before Uncle Sammy was born. His memories of stoop life and stoop ball are from growing up on that blodk.
Uncle Sammy explained to me how stoopball was played. The game was very simple and the only thing needed was a small rubber ball. The balls were usually pink, light weight and made by a company called Spaulding. They cost about a nickel. Once another boy agreed to a game all they had to do was find a stoop.
The ball was thrown towards the steps of the stoop. When it hit the very edge of the stoop it could really fly into the air in the direction of the opposite side of the street. The other boy participating in the game did his best to catch that ball. There wasn’t any running of long distances to reach a base as there is in conventional baseball. The goal was to catch the ball and get points.
The boy who won got to lead the next round and any boy who had been watching and wanted to participate now had the opportunity to be called for the game.
There was an old Italian woman on 66th Street who lived near 11th Avenue that did not like it when the boys played stoop bal. She was angry about them playing and would come out to watch the game. This woman hoped the ball would land in her front so that she could take the ball and end the game. When the ball did land on her property and she got it the boys knew they’d never see it again.
The apartment house where the Serrapede family lived on 66th Street did not have a stoop. When Uncle Sammy wanted to hang out with his friends Thomas Romando and Sal D’Allesandro they sat on the stoop next door. Other houses might have ledges at the side of the stoops where they could sit. There were even some houses that had an alcove at the top of the steps, in front of the entrance door. These alcoves offered protection against the rain. Sometimes the boys sat on that kind of a stoop, too.
Late 1950 – Early 1960s: EmilyAnn’s Stoop Life and Stoop Culture
My memories of stoop life are very gender specific. Boys played stoop ball. Girls could watch but they had to be quiet. You did not comment on how a boy played or make remarks that your male cousin or brother was a better player.
Girls played “house” on the stoop. The stairs became a place to sit and pretend with a friend that they were in a room with shelves or a table and chairs. My playmates and I would bring out tea sets, plastic toasters and other play appliances to add to the sense we were in a special place with our dolls.
The house where we lived had an extension in front of the stoop that enabled us to set up 2-3 chairs. There was enough room to draw a very small hop scotch board, too. A small patch of garden at the side added to the possibilities in creating a make-believe world with our dolls.
By the age of 5 I was completely bored with the stoop. I’d played hop scotch and “Red Light, Green Light” on the sidewalk and liked it better. The boys around me found the stoop even more exciting as they grew older and learned how to play stoopball. The girls I knew were also getting bored.
One day I thought that the steps reminded me of a theater. I must have been 5 years old when I realized that movie theaters had balconies. I talked to another girl that lived two doors down. We got the idea of having a puppet show on the stoop. The steps would be the seats in our theater. We had hand puppets that we could act out fairy stories and nursery rhymes with. We talked with our parents and came up with a plan.
Our friends would pay a very small admission fee. Maybe it was three cents or a nickel. Each one got a free lollipop with the cost of admission. We had lots of candy left over from a few months before when it was Easter. We sold these packets for one penny each. We even found things we could sell also for one or two pennies each. Things like charms, costume jewelry we used to play dress-up with or old comic books.
In turn other girls began to have puppet shows. Sometimes their grandmothers did not want the stoop to be used. They worried about their gardens and whether or not we’d make a mess. In these instances the puppet show was given in the back yard. Girls who didn’t use puppets used their dolls. Barbie had not come out yet but smaller dolls like Betsy McCall were used.
We all enjoyed ourselves for one or two summers with the puppet shows. It all started with the stoop. In time other girls began to sell things like lemonade or home made cookies from their stoop. It was a very lively and happy time in the late 1950s.
My paternal Aunt Maureen and Uncle Alex bought me a toy called The Showboat around this time. It was a very large plastic boat from which a child could present a stage play. The main part of the boat was a stage into which very detailed backdrops were inserted. Cardboard characters in full costume had plastic stands and were moved about the stage. When viewed from above the stage floor was marked for front, back and sides. This helped with the placement of the characters.
The Showboat came with a book that contained complete scripts for several fairytales and adventure stories. It was great fun to stage a show. I enjoyed having my friends come over for one.
The problem was that once I’d staged all the shows there was nothing else to do with The Showboat. My Dad had told me that he and Mom would love to see one again. But my Mom had other ideas. At this point in the marriage she was getting restless and wanted to go to work, to get off the block and to expand her outlook. She planned to go back to night school to update her secretarial skills but that was for the future. For the time being she joined a book club.
The Showboat was too big to store in the basement. There was enough junk down there already. Mom gave The Showboat away once she knew I had no further interest in it. It proved to be too heavy and too big to move around. I’m not sure if it went to the Salvation Army or to another family. I didn’t mind. Mom brought me in from the sidewalk and the stoop about mid-way through 1st grade. I was only 6 years old but one of the luckiest of little girls. What Mom did was so simple but so life changing. She helped me cultivate an interest that drew us into a much deeper mother and daughter relationship. We found a common interest and I was an eager learner for all she had to share with me.
Mom and I started to watch “The Early Show” from 4 to 5:30 p.m. on weekdays. All the old Hollywood Classic Films were aired on TV then. I got to know all the great actresses like Bette Davis, Olivia de Haviland, Joan Crawford, the Bennett Sisters and more. And then there was the dashing Errol Flynn in “Captain Blood”. I also found Dana Andrews handsome. Mom told me all she knew about the stars and their lives. Later, when I was about 8 years old, Dad started to take us on outings to the museums in New York City. I never thought about or missed the stoop life or stoop culture even though some of my former friends on the block still congregated together outside as in years past.
1939 New York World’s Fair
1939 New York World’s Fair
“A look back at some of the coolest attractions at the 1939 World’s Fair”
The New York Daily News
by Keri Blakinger, Saturday April 30, 2016
Brooklyn’s Stoop Life and Stoop Culture
“Back to Brooklyn
A Quick History of the Borough”
by Hannah Fons, Aug. 2005
See the section, Stoop Culture
“In Praise of Very Large Staircases: A Brief History of the Social Function of Stoops”
by Michelle and James Nevius
May 3, 2013
This video contains film footage of children playing stoopball in Brooklyn, NY in what looks like the period 1930-1960. There are also contributions by people who remember stoopball and other street games of that era.
“New York Street Games (stoopball)
Peter Spinelli and Spinelli Co., Inc.
1933 Brooklyn City Directory
US City Directories, 1822-1995
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Wednesday, December 2, 1931
“Budding Leader, Not Yet 3, Surprises 9th Democrats with Erudite Discussion”
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Thursday December 31, 1931
“Be One of Us! Join the Peter Spinelli Democratic Club”
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Saturday, September 8, 1934
“Brooklyn Primary ‘Bump Off’ Threats Bring U.S. Probe”
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Friday, July 5, 1940
“Spinelli thrown from Motorcycle”
1940 Federal Census for the Spinelli Families
film strip 28
“Park Slope #1: Mi Stoop es su Stoop?”
by Robert, June 3, 2008
Curbed New York
“Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Where Stoop Life Still Thrives”
by Alison Gregor, June 17, 2015
The New York Times
“The Remarkable Tale of Brownstone Brooklyn’s Stoops: Here, Gone and Back Again”
by Suzanne Spellen (a/k/a Montrose Morris), March 21, 2016