My wife Kathy and I are getting an education on community. We recently moved downtown. Our home has a large front porch. Our previous homes didn’t. They had rear decks. We’re learning why decks and patios make building community difficult.

In 1975 Richard Thomas wrote a little piece, “From Porch to Patio.” He describes how the transition from porch to patio signifies a shift in American society. We went from a concern for private and public things to one of increasing privacy. This shift was signified in homes featuring back decks and patios but no (or very small) front porches.

The porch bridged the gap between the private realm (home) and the public domain (streets and sidewalks). Thomas writes how it “presented opportunities for social intercourse.” When you’re on a porch, you can invite the passerby to stop and come onto the porch. Patios are different. They’re for privacy. If anyone does walk by, they’re probably trespassing.

This break between private and public goes back to the early 1800s. Tocqueville coined a term, describing an American as “the individualist.” He predicted Americans would retreat into a “small circle” of friends and family. No need for bridges between private and public. You can observe this trend in architecture, the built environment. Porches began to disappear in the 20th century. Take Baltimore for example.

When you drive north from downtown, you encounter blocks of row houses with marble steps and, later, front porches close to one another. Further north, suburbs spring up (the 50s). Larger lots. Houses further off the street. Next is the modern 60s. Porches shrink, becoming ornamental. By 70s and 80s, rear decks are the norm.

Add to this air-conditioning. We keep windows shut year round. We don’t hear neighbors anymore. With the addition of garages and garage door openers, we enter our home from the privacy of our cars. Today, the built environment encourages increasing privacy, shielding us from the niggling demands of neighbors.

Small wonder housing developments in the 50s were called “subdivisions”—a mathematical term. They aren’t communities. Big front yards and rear patios ensure that faux porches (too cramped for seating and too far from sidewalks) are not bridges.

For years I understood this only on a theoretical level. Then we moved to downtown Annapolis. No yard. A large porch snuggled up to the sidewalk and street. Hundreds of townspeople walk by everyday. In the summer the porch is shaded and cool. When the leaves are down, the winter sun warms the porch. We live outside almost year ‘round.

In a little over a year we’ve enjoyed many serendipitous encounters just sitting on our porch. That’s the power of porches. A few weeks back, two 20-somethings—Jeremy and Maca—were walking by. We said hello from our porch. They said they’d always admired our home. We invited them in. It turns out Jeremy knows our son Mark. We’re having dinner with this couple in a few weeks.

In his book, “The Vanishing Neighbor,” Marc J. Dunkelman says people are good at tending their inner-ring relationships—their family and friends. They’re pretty good at tending to outer-ring relationships—their hundreds of Facebook acquaintances or, for Christians, their church, which they have to drive to. It’s not in any neighborhood. But Americans spend less time with middle-ring relationships—the neighborhood. Middle-ring friendships are formed by serendipitous encounters, the neighbor whose political opinions you find abhorrent. In a neighborhood, you find ways to work together.

Dunkelman’s work dovetails with Oliver Roy’s Holy Ignorance. Roy begins by noting that religion, though still obviously an important part of modern society, has been relegated to the private sphere, becoming an increasingly private “interior” search for spiritual well-being. Faith communities of every stripe increasingly withdraw from neighborhoods and the broader culture. They aren’t really neighbors.

When Jesus was asked Who is my neighbor?, he replied it’s the wrong question. Be a neighbor. Being a neighbor means appreciating the famous first line of Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” He meant that for marriages to flourish, they must succeed in many different respects: sexual attraction, agreement about money, child discipline, religion, in-laws, and so on. Failure in any one respect can doom a marriage. Same goes for community. They require many things—walkable towns, places to go, people to see, safe streets, building codes that permit houses snuggled close together. And they require porches.

As I said, Kathy and I are getting an education. The gap between the private and public domain has widened too far. The New Urbanists get this. They understand Churchill’s maxim. We shape our building and then they shape us. New Urbanists are building homes with front porches. Christians serious about building community would benefit from understanding how the built community shapes us in ways big and small.

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike

 

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10 Responses to “Power of Porches”

  1. marble says:

    For a blisteringly funny indictment of the ‘design elements’ of suburbia – and our current notion of pubic space – you might enjoy this somewhat dated TED talk by James Howard Kunstler, “The Ghastly Tragedy of the Suburbs”:

    [Language and political correctness warnings]

    This is a laugh-out-loud funny indictment of how we’ve been “designing” our living spaces effectively to exclude people. Serendipitously, I posted this just a few days ago on Facebook. . . .

  2. marble says:

    If that embed link doesn’t come through, here’s the link itself:

    http://www.ted.com/talks/james_howard_kunstler_dissects_suburbia?language=en

  3. David Greusel says:

    Yes!

    The main thing subdivisions are not is neighborhoods. The lack of (or vestigial) front porches is only the most obvious evidence. Also to blame: air conditioning (as Mike points out), culs-de-sac, garage door openers, and missing sidewalks. Postwar subdivisions are designed NOT to be neighborhoods, and they work well for their intended function.

  4. Trent McEntyre says:

    The front porch is a great sign about the direction that our lives ought to go.

    Mike, I’d like to hear more about the distinction between inner, outer, and middle rings of relationships. I wonder if the middle ring only works if you go into it to give rather than receive? Does the middl require a greater sense of personal security and peace? The middle is dangerous, the inner and outer seem safer.

    Jesus’ parable of the banquet in Luke 14 paints a picture of the kingdom of God that resonates with the power of porches.

  5. Gerard says:

    Mike,

    I appreciate the language of inner, outer, and middle relationships and the recommended reading of The Vanishing Neighborhoods.

    I am intrigued how the command “love your neighbor” is the middle sphere which in some ways, costs the most but is the easiest to neglect.

  6. Mike Metzger says:

    Marble: I bet you meant to write “public.” Thanks anyway for your comments. Smile.

    As for the other comments, Montesquieu felt there were physical limits – geographical limits, if you will – if democracy was to be sustained. We’ve obviously forgotten about those limits. We can live far away from our work and place of worship and not be bothered by this at all.

    Gerard: This is what is meant by rings. I have friends with an inner ring (family) and an outer ring (they have to drive pretty far to get to church). They have no middle ring – neighborhood friends… people who call up and say “let’s catch dinner.”

    I felt this lack of middle rings living in the ‘burbs. Can’t say I did much about it, other than Kathy & I having to do the heavy lifting of organizing neighborhood parties. Very few reciprocated. Like 1%.

    Interesting that we rightly talk about “building community” yet often overlook how the built environment makes it extraordinarily difficult to build community. I know a man who does this, but he expends extraordinary effort building networks. When you have to get in your car to bump into people, you’ve pretty much erased the odds of serendipity (which is critical to community). Kathy & I have found that very very very few folks are good at reciprocating and building middle rings, neighborhoods, communities.

  7. Phil Monetti says:

    Mike,
    Yes, your blog brings back happy memories of us and our neighbors sitting on our front porches on warm summer evenings. Our preoccupation with TV and computers have not helped us become more “neighborly”.

  8. Tim Smick says:

    My porch is in the back of my house and the beach is where I visit our neighbors most frequently. There is something about the beach that “opens up” people to want to connect in a relaxed fashion. We hosted a gathering of 33 of our neighbors last Saturday and the sense of community we derived from that time assures me that we will host many others.

    BTW, the movie “Avalon” very eloquently portrays the suburb dynamic of which you speak.

    Tim

  9. marble says:

    Ah, the difference a letter makes. . . . [eeek] Yes, you caught the correct meaning!

  10. Sara O says:

    I found the both the post and comments very interesting. And the images and some of the themes of the movie “Avalon” were passing before my eyes, too!

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