Row houses, we estimate, make up roughly a quarter of New York City’s residential buildings. That’s a lot of street frontage. Few New Yorkers boast about their great front yards (roof access, maybe) but row house “yards” mediate much of our experience of the city. What happens in this semi-public space between the sidewalk and the front door?
We asked Sebastian Bernardy and Vincent Meyer Madaus of Eventually Made, a New York- and Rotterdam-based design studio with a fascination with the spaces of everyday life, to take a closer look at the many lives of the row house front yard. There are many ways, beyond the prototypical brownstone stoop, that the row house greets the street. The architectural style, era of development, and local land use regulations all play a part, as do the occupants: when space is at premium, people are quick to repurpose it for their needs. Some yards foster sociability, while others stake out private property and provide a barrier between the street and the home.
Through trips around the city — both on foot and virtually — together we documented five common uses of row house “yards.” There’s the living room, where the yard serves as an extension of the domestic space of the home. In the garden, row house dwellers tend to lawns or create their own flowering oases from the concrete. The most well-worn example is the classic stoop, where residents perch and mix with passersby. Then there’s the parking spot, often gated. Finally, there’s the nothing area, where residents may stash trash and bicycles but little else.
Vincent and Sebastian created line drawings of each of the five types, employing an oblique perspective to show how activities unfold in this space — and give the viewer a sense of peering into a miniature world below. Their analytic distance gives a fresh lens to New York’s most stalwart residential form, making the familiar a little strange. One real-life row house from four of the five boroughs (sorry, Manhattan, we doubled up on row house-rich Brooklyn) serves as the backdrop for an exploration of yard usage in these fantastically detailed composite drawings, which represent a hyperreal version of a typical row house streetscape. Accompanying photographs exemplify each of these categories out in the wild.
Peer into how row house residents negotiate this semi-public zone — and thus their neighbors and the city at large. –E.S.
Deep setbacks and some separation from the street are particularly conducive to making the front yard a social space, like in this block of early 20th century row houses in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn.
Space is scarce. When given the opportunity and weather permitting, it makes sense to delegate activities outside. Dinners and barbecues take place in the front, as do reading on the stoop, one-on-one ball games, hanging laundry, and plant care, all amidst holiday decorations and other displays. This yard even includes space to worship, in the form of a miniature Virgin Mary, along with all the other parts of daily life.
Lush gardens and even traditional grass lawns can be found in places like this row on the Clason Point peninsula of the South Bronx — while in denser settings, plants and flowers in pots and trays seemingly spring from concrete.
Urban dwellers tend to yearn for more green in the city and it’s not surprising that even the smallest spaces in front of row houses are filled with potted greens, edible herbs, and flower beds. In neighborhoods with a bit more space, even regular lawns can be found in (mostly) carefully trimmed and maintained micro-yards. The green element is abundant in all forms: on the ground, confined to pots, on balconies, in hanging vines, in planters on sills, with climbing ivy, in decorative moss — plastic counterparts included.
The stoop (from the Dutch stoep) has littered the city since the early 19th century and manifests old New York. While most common in the brownstones and limestones of Brooklyn and Manhattan, swooping stoops are found throughout the city, including on this row in Long Island City, Queens.
The classic New York stoop is a fixture of media and narratives of the city. A valued feature in row houses, stoops are often cared for attentively: Owners are regularly seen sweeping off leaves and dirt, fixing cracks in the stone, and brushing and polishing the surfaces. As a place for leisure, sitting on the stoop has become shorthand for hanging out to discuss daily matters and share the latest block news.
Since 1950, the city has (with exceptions) required off-street parking in new residential development. Garages and parking pads place the car front and center in many postwar outer borough row house developments, like this one in Rosebank, Staten Island. (Older row houses only occasionally feature intentional parking space, but do sometimes sport modified carports and homegrown solutions.)
Cars can seem the most prized possession of a household, cared for meticulously by the owners. Gated front yards can create a cage for cars and bikes, crammed with various vehicles. Quiet and tucked in on most days, you can see an almost ritual car wash carried out on weekends, an activity often taught and passed down to children, voluntarily or as a chore.
Small patches of concrete at the front of the home prevail in dense neighborhoods. The sliver out front of this row house in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, is mostly used for trash, a necessity in a (nearly) alley-less city.
“Nothing” doesn’t tell the full story, because storage and trash are legitimate uses for an all-too-small space. Maybe the most prevalent type of yard, these spaces harbor all kinds of recycling and waste as well as secured bicycle and motorbike parking. However, more often than not, access to the front is limited and the space effectively remains a barren, concrete plane, not more than a buffer between sidewalk and row house — a place for no particular thing.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.