WASHINGTON, DC — This week, artist Margo Elsayd will push a wooden stoop on wheels around Washington, DC, inviting passersby to sit on it and share stories of all sorts with anyone willing to lend an ear. As a cultural site, the stoop has a history as a place for social gatherings, and Elsayd’s has functioned as a mobile soapbox. During past runs, it has attracted people of all backgrounds who have used it in myriad ways, from a platform to discuss topics such as gentrification to a stage for performing music or spoken word.
“The Mobile Community Stoop Project,” which launched on September 2, is part of E12: Social Practice, the 12th iteration of a yearly program for emerging DC artists started by Transformer gallery. Each session focuses on different artistic disciplines, and this year’s centers on artists who incorporate public action and social interventions in their work. Elsayd didn’t intend for the work to be political, but most of the conversations that have occurred on her stoop have related to the city’s changing fabric.
“Stoop culture’s a really big thing out [in northeast DC],” Elsayd told Hyperallergic. “I live in a really cool neighborhood where we all sit on our stoops, but there’s a lot of development going on in DC so there’s always apartment buildings going up. So we’re losing this sense of community because they’re a social device: we sit outside, talk to our neighbors.”
While row houses and single family homes were once prevalent in many neighborhoods in the nation’s capital, stoops have disappeared from the city’s landscape over time, replaced by glass-fronted condominiums and private lobbies that deny outside engagement and open community gathering. The extent of stoops’ fading role in society was clear as Elsayd moved hers around: some people initially didn’t recognize the structure, asking her, “What’s a stoop?” Others, especially older passersby, were drawn to it out of nostalgia and immediately sat on its steps.
Storytelling, conversations, and arguments have all occurred around the stoop: people have chronicled their neighborhoods’ histories and expressed concerns about their futures; at a farmer’s market, a man preached about Jesus and crêpes; one father used the structure to vocalize his fears, speaking about his son and local crime. Other conversations more quietly underlined the city’s failures: “Where are you going to sleep tonight?” Elsayd asked one elderly man in a downtown park.
“I don’t know, maybe the park benches over there,” he said, pointing with his cane.
Transformer is also displaying photographs of these encounters during the stoop’s 10-day run. As visual narratives, the most striking are those that show the stoop parked against a site as if the steps actually lead to a home. Standing in front of a construction zone in the NoMa “neighborhood,” the old wooden steps highlight the area’s fast development; another photograph shows them against a hair salon that closed after 50 years of business “due to ‘gentrification’ and mixed emotions,” as its owners explained.
As the city only continues to grow quickly skyward, residents and businesses are not only being displaced but are also increasingly losing traditional sources for community bonding. “The Mobile Community Stoop Project” is a simple tribute to a humble architectural feature, but it stands as a site for people to come together, share their concerns, and, perhaps, rally to make real change.
“People absolutely need a public platform to come out,” Elsayd said. “I don’t think [some of them] would have met each other otherwise. With the stoop, people gained curiosity, and then they took it from there.”
The Mobile Community Stoop continues at Transformer (1404 P Street NW, Washington, DC) through September 12. It will also be on view during the Social Change Art Action Lab at American University’s Katzen Arts Center from September 24–October 22.