Today is the first day of spring. And spring is the start of porch-sitting season. If, that is, you have a porch that is sittable.
Have you noticed that the farther you travel out from the inner city (with its older homes), the smaller and less-sittable the front porches are? Contrast, for example, the South Side’s Fairmount neighborhood, developed 1890-1930, to neighborhoods twenty years and three miles farther out, such as South Hills, developed 1950-1970.
The porches below are all in Fairmount.
Front porches in neighborhoods in what is now the inner city, such as Fairmount, were built high, wide, and handsome, often the width of the house and sometimes even wrapping around a corner or two. Front porches were big enough to furnish with chairs, a table, a swing or glider or hammock, a sleeping family dog or two, and all the kids of a typical family, which was larger then.
In contrast, the front porches of newer houses often are barely bigger than a closet. My own front porch—South Hills, 1954—is barely big enough for the mail carrier to deliver rude notices from my creditors (aside to Sears: the check is in the mail).
Porches changed because the rest of the world—people included—changed.
Yesterday’s front porch was a place where a family spent time: sat out there, ate out there, visited out there, even slept out there. To our grandparents a front porch was a full-fledged room of the house, part of their “living space”—a room that just happened to be outdoors. The front porch put people in touch with the world beyond the window panes: watch the sun punch out and set at the end of its shift, the evening star punch in and begin its night shift. Listen to the hoot of owl, the patter of rain, the whistle of wind, the clop of hooves. Smell honeysuckle, wood smoke, fresh-cut grass (cut by a reel mower).
In contrast, today’s front porch is a place where a family pauses long enough to get the mail, to answer the doorbell, or to fumble for the house key. (In fact, with attached garages, many homeowners don’t even come and go through the front door.)
Today when people need more “living space” in an older house the front porch is often sacrificed: converted as people turn the “outside room” into an inside room.
A century ago, before air-conditioning, in summertime the porch might be the coolest room of the house. People could sit on the porch and sip a glass of cold lemonade or tea, fan themselves with a hand fan bearing an advertisement of a local funeral home, and watch the world go by. Today air-conditioning keeps us indoors as we watch the world go by on CNN’s news ticker.
Too, our grandparents had more at-home time to begin with than we do today. Home was where we lived, not just where we sleep and wait for the FedEx truck or the Instacart car. Fewer people drove back then, there were no malls, fewer movie theaters and other diversions to lure people away from home. Now we have so many places to go and so many ways to get there.
Back then teenagers even courted on the front porch. Now teenagers court in cars or at school or at the mall. (And they sure as shootin’ don’t call it “courting.”) In the virtual coziness of cyberspace they exchange heartfelt text messages.
To our grandparents the front porch was a public place: On the front porch they chatted with the mailman, iceman, milkman, policeman, grocery delivery boy, paperboy, and neighbors. Our grandparents knew the names of their neighbors. We are more private now, less engaged with neighbors. We may not know even the surname of “those people” who live one house down and across the street.
Our grandparents could sit on the front porch and see what neighborhood kids were up to as the kids played. Kids gathered spontaneously outdoors after dinner to catch lightning bugs and horny toads or to play ball or tag or hide-and-seek or hopscotch in yards and on sidewalks and even in the streets. Today the streets aren’t considered to be safe, and kids are shuttled by parents to playdates or to organized activities away from the neighborhood at school or a sports field.
Because people spent time on their front porches, there were more eyes watching the neighborhood. More eyes, less crime? Front porches also encouraged communal parenting. Our grandparents hollered at misbehaving neighborhood kids: “Don’t make me call your ma!” Today we’d holler at misbehaving neighborhood kids: “Don’t make me call my attorney!”
Yes, about the middle of the twentieth century Americans filed a change-of-address form and moved—from the front to the back, from the public to the private, from the communal to the cloistered. Our grandparents were front porch people. If their front yard was fenced at all, it was a fence they could see and be seen over; their grandchildren have become back yard people: back yard-barbecue grill-lawn chair-by the pool-patio people hidden from neighbors by a wooden privacy fence. If we aren’t indoors in the air-conditioning, we’re in the back yard on the patio.
The patio is our porch.
Gradually, one technological innovation after another, one inward turning after another, we moved. And as we made that move—as happens anytime someone moves—along the way something got lost.