This is no stairway to heaven, but a relic of the days before houses had dryers or neighborhood laundromats. The ladder would have served as an anchor for a clothesline. Each apartment in a three- or four-story house would have a clothesline that extended from the back of house to a position on the ladder.
These days, the ladders are usually found rusted and grown over with ivy and tree branches. If you look carefully, you may see a pulley attached to a cord going from your building to the ladder, which allowed the laundry to be pulled along the clothes line to the window.
Originally, they were made out of wood, then replaced by iron to better withstand the elements. In fact, they’re so tough to remove, thanks to their poured concrete bases, that developers often leave them in place, even when gut renovating a building and redoing the backyard, as was the case with the listing shown in the image above. However, there are businesses that will remove a clothesline ladder for you.
A 2003 New York Times article called them “Giacometti-style interlopers that have sprouted in urban backyards” and profiled residents of row-house neighborhoods like Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and Ridgewood, Queens that still used them. But even then they were on their way out in gentrified neighborhoods.
In this 2009 blog post about removing a clothesline ladder by cutting sections of it down, some commenters lamented the end of old Brooklyn. They reminisced about the scent of fresh dried laundry and the benefits to the environment of using a clothesline. Still others commented that “yellowed and ragged underwear drying on the line” was nothing but an eyesore.
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