by Kendra Langdon Juskus
Porch swings have long been a feature of my favorite warm-weather fantasy. There I sit, a book in one hand and a glass of lemonade in the other.
Why a fantasy? Because porch swings generally hang on front porches, and the front porch is an architectural detail that many of our homes lack.* The importance of the front porch has been diminished by the efficiency-obsessed culture we live in today, a culture that threatens our fundamental humanity with busyness, anonymity, and industrialization. In contrast, much about the front porch is human.
According to The American Porch: An Informal History of an Informal Place by Michael Dolan (Lyons Press, 2004), the front porch traveled to the New World in the 1600s with African slaves who built houses here similar to what they had known in Africa: small dwellings fronted by a roofed outdoor area to provide cool shade and a social space that bridged public and private worlds.
This intermediary social nature of the porch is its strongest asset. The porch is a physical space that is both personal to its owner and hospitable to guests and strangers. It is a threshold of community: Neither a place of anonymity nor of complete intimacy, it is a place where new connections are wrought and old connections are strengthened. One can be invited onto a front porch even as a passerby; it provides opportunities for welcoming the stranger.
Contrast the front porch with the back deck, an architectural feature that arose in American neighborhoods in the 1970s. The back deck is a private sanctuary into which only friends and relatives are admitted. Dolan explains that
Decks got smoother, bigger, and more complex … Ever-larger jerryrigged 3-D grids rose behind kraal-like stockade walls that went up overnight in eight-foot sections, prefabricated privacy (or was it spite?) fences that made a backyard into a mystery zone (What were they doing in there?) … The deck became the prime real-world architectural element of the Me Decade.
I'll wager that more of us live in homes with back decks than front porches. My home certainly fits that description. And while it has a large front stoop, that space is too small for hosting friends and has no roof for shade.
But I confess, the real reason my husband and I don't use the stoop is because it is an awkward interface with our neighbors. We live in a walkable neighborhood, but at best we offer a shy "hello" to passersby. What I really want to say is, "Come on up! We want to welcome you into a very human space of interaction and maybe even friendship." But we're fairly new to the area, and shouting that across the front lawn might be overdoing it.
I know we're not alone in our hesitancy to embrace such awkwardness. It's difficult to regenerate a front-porch culture when the physical front porch has been abandoned in favor of air conditioning/ television and in response to the perceived stranger-danger, fear, and suspicion that characterize contemporary society.
So where do we find porch-like spaces of hospitality and welcome? How do we re-create the gatherings that had formed around the front porch?
In many cases we drive away from our homes and neighborhoods to meet familiar friends in neutral territory, pocketing ourselves away in coffee shops or restaurants. These gathering spaces can build community, but they are not homes. They lack the hospitality and personality of a front porch and demand none of the admittedly awkward but still crucial aspects of reaching out and drawing in that a heartfelt welcome comprises. A front porch is immediate and visible to neighbors, fostering interaction that is spontaneous and allowing a community to come together in a space in a casual way.
Reinvigorating a front-porch culture may strengthen a Christian ethic of hospitality and welcome, but it also encourages living en plein air. Walking, gardening, and letting our children play outdoors become more attractive activities when we know there are eyes on the street (part of writer and urban activist Jane Jacobs' prescription for safe and healthy cities). We get more exercise and less television when we discover that walking to a nearby porch for fellowship is easier and more fulfilling than driving to a coffee shop. We learn more about our local topography and ecology as we walk. We take responsibility for each other: We learn who in our community is in need of prayer, a good meal, or help with rent. Maybe we realize that our local streetscape is dangerous, and we unite to plan sidewalks, pedestrian refuge islands, or stop signs so that we can gather together more safely.
A front porch is more than a quaint architectural bauble hanging from the front of a house. And even if the front porch is a fantasy for many of us, we can still extend the front-porch mindset of neighborhood and community a long way out into society.
Kendra Langdon Juskus is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Illinois with her husband and two sons.
*Suburban—especially subdivision—homes often dedicate this important space to the garage. Architects call them "snout" houses: The garage projects from the body of the house as its most visible feature, making the car seem like the main occupant of the house, as opposed to the people.
Read "Church on the Porch," about a ministry that was born on a front porch in North Carolina.