Sunday, October 18, 2009

Front Porch Republic

Our neighborhood community could be defined as a porch-ocracy, something I've had to adjust to since moving here. I grew up on a farm with no real neighbors, aside from one farm that was running a PCP lab. Our first actual neighborhood had no real community. Partly, this was just a matter of lousy design. We had no sidewalks; instead we had drainage ditches and kids walked in the road. There were no porches either; instead there was the ubiquitous patio in back, for socializing with invited guests only. It wasn't just that there was no real socializing in that neighborhood; it was that the physical layout of the place made it hard to be social without seeming like you were prying. Jane Jacobs would have been horrified by that neighborhood.

One of Jacobs's great insights, of many, was that designing residential spaces works best when you're simply enabling people to build their own communities, as opposed to trying to design them into communities. The front porch is an example of a design feature that is basically invisible. But think about how having a front porch encourages the home owner to socialize only to the extent that they want to. Our neighbors can greet passersby on the sidewalk politely, and if they want to chat they can chat. But they don't have to. Most of our neighbors are pretty chatty.

The neighborhood functions as a sort of front porch archipelago. When I make my daily walks, I usually say "hello" to a few people on their porches. The older women sit on their porch into the early evening, recreating the eternal "neighborhood elder" role. When Claire injured herself one evening that I was away, she knew just whose house to walk to in order to get a ride to the emergency room. In general, I could probably tell you who on the block to go to for various favors, and I'm not even very interested in that sort of thing.

The downside of the porchocracy is that you have little privacy. When I am in the front yard weeding, I'm always aware that the porch women are watching me. When we first went to visit them upon moving in, they already knew what Claire and I do for a living. Privacy was never a problem in Toronto- the people who lived in the same house as us refused to say 'Hi' to us. As Jacobs understood, cities tend to be better for privacy, but can tip over into alienation and loneliness.

I've only recently started thinking about porches, which do tend to be somewhat invisible after all, since moving into this neighborhood. The Front Porch Republic is a relatively new blog that discusses community, localism, democracy, and values, through the prism of the porch. It's pretty heady stuff. Here's a quote from an article that sums up the concerns at issue fairly well:
"In a microcosm, the forces that led to the decline of the porch as a place of transition between the private and the public realm have eviscerated both those domains of their capacity to educate a citizenry for self-government. The porch – as an intermediate space, even a sphere of “civil society” – was the symbolic and practical place where we learned that there is not, strictly speaking, a total separation between the public and private worlds. Our actions in private are not merely “private,” but have, in toto, profound public implications. The decline of courtship and marriage proposals within earshot of kin, for one instance, has led to ever greater “privatization” of our intimate lives, and a proportionate decline of the societal and public investment in undergirding families and the communities that foster them. Our private actions of driving ever greater distances in our automobiles have fostered devastated landscapes, deep dependence of foreign powers and tract housing devoid of real community. Meanwhile, our “public” world is increasingly shorn of the voices of citizens, wholly attenuated in the decline of the capacity of localities to govern their fates."
They've also included a really great article by Richard H. Tomas historicizing the gradual shift of the porch from the front to the back of the average house and the development of the patio. It might seem insignificant, but as Thomas points out,
"a concentrated look at the porch enables us to see how the use of new materials and an increasing desire for privacy modified not only the artistic design of the house, but suggested new forms of social relations with one's neighbors. This in turn may illustrate shifting ideas about what is meant by a sense of community or belonging to a certain place."
It's worth noting that our neighborhood was built in the WWII era and earlier, and looks it. But it's also interesting and heartening to me, as someone who often despairs about this subject, that simply building a neighborhood that allows for, but doesn't force social interaction generally will allow communities and sub-communities to develop organically. From village elders to the older women with their front porch republic, the norms of community seem to be wired into us. They're worth leaving be.

No comments: