Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
One artist is taking neighborliness on the road.
Bike lanes are the best way to move a stoop through the city. For the past month, Margo Elsayd, an artist based in Washington, D.C., has been rolling her mobile stoop into different neighborhoods and waiting for people to ask her what she’s doing. It never takes long.
Two weeks back, for example, Elsayd set up her Mobile Community Stoop Project at Q Street and New Jersey Avenue NW, in D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood.
“I was walking [the stoop], and there were these dudes hanging out on the back of a blue pick-up truck, five or six of them, and I was like, ‘What are you guys doing?’” Elsayd says. “And they’re like, ‘What are you doing?’”
They grew up in the neighborhood, she says. They’re old men now, but they like to come back to the old spot every now and then. Bring it over, bring it over, they asked her. So she did. Then the old guys did what old guys do in D.C.: They sat on the stoop and shot the shit.
On Thursday, Elsayd parked The Mobile Community Stoop Project in front of Transformer, a D.C. gallery and arts incubator. Day and night through September 12, it will sit outside the Logan Circle storefront. Elsayd’s show is the culmination of Transformer’s 12th annual Exercises for Emerging Artists Program, a mentorship and exhibition series for D.C. artists. The theme of E12 is “Social Practice,” which refers to one of the newer modes of contemporary art.
Interactivity is key in Elsayd’s work, even if that means someone winds up urinating on her sculpture. (This is the fate of a lot of stoops near Logan Circle on weekend nights.) Like a lot of so-called social-practice art, Elsayd’s work bridges performance and activism, although she refers to The Mobile Community Stoop Project simply as sculpture. Few who encounter it on the street pick that up right away.
“Most people think it’s a workout. They think I’m pushing this around as exercise,” Elsayd says. “That’s the number one thing I get a lot, which is really weird to me.”
Four times a week since the start of August, Elsayd has pushed her stoop to some new place in D.C. When she sets it near a bus stop that lacks a bench, people figure she’s a worker from the city. When she parked it at 4th and Rhode Island in Northeast, near the artist’s home in Edgewood, several people asked her if she was selling cell phones. “I have no idea what that is about,” she says.
Most people recognize the what, if not the why. The stoop is a vital symbol in D.C. and other cities on the East Coast. Everyone knows exactly what to do with a stoop: You sit down on it, maybe open a beer, and say hi to everyone who passes. (Or play an impromptu rock show.)
The thing that changes with The Mobile Community Stoop Project is the community. At the Brookland farmers market, the stoop’s a hit with families. She’s even working with Split This Rock, a spoken-word group, to host performances around the stoop.
“It’s based on location,” Elsayd says. “If I stay in Edgewood, I’m primarily going to be dealing with old-school, black-American culture, which I fucking love. I love hearing their stories. But I also am interested in parking it in front of one of these new apartment buildings.”
She adds, “How do they form communities in apartment buildings? Stoops were created as a social device, for people to connect with one another and hang out and talk.”
While the stoop is a crucial part of black vernacular architecture, it’s mostly absent in newer neighborhoods in D.C. Parking the stoop in NoMA, where older residential forms have been supplanted by new multifamily residential buildings and office towers, is a kind of instant juxtaposition of Old City and #NewDC.
The Mobile Community Stoop Project can take on a grimmer reading in certain contexts. When Elsayd anchored it outside the former Jak. & Co Hairdressers storefront, she was investing the work with political significance. In April, the Bloomingdale beauty salon posted a blunt note declaring that it was closing after 50 years “due to ‘gentrification.’”
Sitting on the stoop across the street on Rhode Island Avenue, in front of a neighborhood bar called Showtime, Elsayd and I were greeted with questions right away. One grouch didn’t care for it: He said the neighborhood’s got plenty of stoops already. A recent transplant from Austin wanted to know what it is and where it came from. “That’s my mobile stoop,” Elsayd told him. “You should sit on it and let me take your picture.”
The whole idea of a stoop was foreign to the new resident, who had become a viewer and participant in Elsayd’s work. In Austin and Los Angeles, the cities he know, no one built stoops—for art or any other reason. “What is a mobile stoop for?” he asked the artist. “It’s to bring people together,” she answered. “Stairway to nowhere,” said a different visitor.
Elsayd says she gets some sass. “One lady was like, ‘You’re missing the house.’”