Three Generations of Brooklyn Stoops

Look at everything always as though you were seeing it either for the first or last time: Thus is your time on earth filled with glory.”

Betty Smith. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A stoop is a staircase ending in a platform leading to a house or apartment building entrance. In Brooklyn, a stoop is so much more! Each block in Brooklyn is a unique village with its personality and culture. These houses are the places from whence we fledged.

Early generations of my maternal grandmother’s family came to Brooklyn from Ireland, settling in the Boerum Hill neighborhood in Brooklyn. An 1830s era Brownstone on Dean Street served as a strong branch to hold up that side of my family tree.

The house at 164 Dean Street was the epicenter of my maternal grandmother’s family. As was the case in many Brooklyn homes, Brownstones housed multiple generations of the extended family living within. The Dean Street house came into the family on March 5, 1907, when John Boyle purchased it. My great uncle, Edward A. O’Connell, took over the home in August 1941 from the estate of Mary C. Cooke, his maternal grandmother, and daughter of John Boyle. Uncle Ed added his brother, James O’Connell, to the deed in October 1941. The house went out of family hands in 1989, after Edward passed away.

Since the 1940 photo, the most significant change to 164 Dean is the replacement of the railings on the stoop. The Pin Oak Tree across the sidewalk now throws shade across the middle of the block.

I have written about following my Great Uncle Ed’s notes on the Boyle, Cooke, and O’Connell branches of my family tree. I study his hand-drawn grid like a pirate memorizing a treasure map.

Uncle Ed’s map of significant family sites from the late 19th and 20th century.

On the left side of the map is the cluster of family sites in a four-square block area just south of Atlantic Avenue. The lower right is the Park Slope add on Uncle Ed provided to document my grandparents moving into a single-family home near Prospect Park.

My grandparents, Bernard and Regina (O’Connell) Kelly, bought 595 4th Street in 1939. They moved their growing family from their residence on the corner of Wyckoff and Bond Streets, two blocks away from my grandmother’s childhood home on Dean Street, to the venerable three-story Limestone near the corner with Prospect Park West.

The 1940 Tax photo shows the house about the time the Kellys occupied the 1880s vintage Limestone. In 1939 their oldest child, Bernard, was six and my mother, Regina, was one. My aunts, Anne, and Maureen would follow in 1945 and 1947, respectively. The Chinese Elm to the left of the house is still there. (Yes, more than one tree grows in Brooklyn.)

The stoop was a place to sit in the sun, watch the kids, talk to friends, or take family photos. It was an overflow space for parties, holiday family gatherings, and celebrations. Those stairs were the center of life and gossip on the block. If you were going out for a big evening, a photo outside was in order before departing for graduation, proms, or weddings. My mother grew up on the stoop in front of 595.

Of the forty single-family homes on 4th Street, only nine are Brownstones. They are together in a row on the south side of the street in the block’s middle. If you walk up the slope from 8th Avenue heading east towards the Park, you will pass some modern brick homes, then five Limestone row houses before the run of brownstones begin. They yield to the stately Limestones again for the rest of the run to the apartment buildings at the top of the block with prestigious Prospect Park West addresses. All of the forty single-family homes, even the Limestones, had brownstone stoops and retaining walls.

In the early 1960s through June 1973, my family lived in the Brownstone at 562 4th Street, just down the street from my grandmother’s home. I remember a neighbor; we called her “Doe Bird,” who lived two doors up from us at 566, telling me that the tree growing just across the sidewalk from our stoop was a Linden Tree. It is not in the 1940 tax photo, but I remember it as a sapling when I was a kid in the 1960s. The 2017 photo shows it is now dominating the sidewalk.

As a child, the stoop at 562 4th Street was my original playground. I would watch the bigger kids play in the street. I would anchor my orange Hot Wheels tracks under the milk box near the great oak and glass front doors and run my cars to the landing before the lower steps. We did homework outside on sunny days, and my sisters took their Barbies on imagination fueled adventures from there. My mother grew geraniums in large stone planters along the top of the brownstone railings. Those geraniums were there to keep us from falling onto the stone stairs leading to the basement door under the stoop.

4th Street was our castle. It was guarded by the towering apartment buildings on the corners of 8th Avenue to the west and Prospect Park West to the east. As we grew older, our games spilled over from the stoop to the sidewalk, then the street. We rode our bikes and roller-skated in front of our house with skate keys in our pockets. We played stoop ball, wiffle ball across from one side of the street to the other, and stick ball from sewer cover to sewer cover. Parked cars lent us their door handles as first and third base. Eventually, we graduated to playing in our enormous backyard, Prospect Park, under the watchful eye of Adele and her staff. We walked to school on 7th Street, returning home for lunch each day. We did this alone as first graders once our mothers were confident that we would mind our older, wiser siblings or understood we were not to deviate from the route. My memories of the 1960s and early 1970s reveal an idyllic childhood where there was always a Mom somewhere on the block with eyes on everyone’s kids. Friends were everywhere, and games were only a moment from starting.  Life was sweet. The neighbors all knew each other, the trees were smaller, the houses seemed to be so much bigger, and the cars parked along the street were more interesting than today’s generic motors.

Take a look at the Street View of New York in 1940. You know you want to look up an address.

You can also check out the New York City Tree Map to see what is growing outside your door if you are still in Brooklyn or if you want to know what grows near the stoop of your own childhood. According to the site, 181,280 trees are growing in Brooklyn, not counting the parks and cemeteries. Another Brooklyn myth debunked!

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