Front-porch worlds: Pondering our retreat to back yards and patios

Some of us are of an age where we can still faintly recall lives lived all summer on front porches. Now more folks have become back-yard patio denizens. There’s been an epochal change.

“Most of the houses of the Midland town were of a pleasant architecture. They lacked style, but also lacked pretentiousness, and whatever does not pretend at all has style enough,” reads Booth Tarkington’s under-appreciated The Magnificent Ambersons. “They stood in commodious yards, well shaded by leftover forest trees, elm and walnut and beech, with here and there a line of tall sycamores where the land had been made by filling bayous from the creek. The house of a ‘prominent resident’ was built of brick upon a stone foundation, or of wood upon a brick foundation.”

Usually such houses had a front porch and a back porch, and often a side porch, too, continued Tarkington. There was a front hall, a side hall, and sometimes a back hall. From the front hall opened three rooms, the parlor, the sitting room and the library. The library had books. “Commonly, the family sat more in the library than in the sitting room, while callers, when they came formally, were kept to the parlor, a place of formidable polish and discomfort. The upholstery of the library furniture was a little shabby; but the hostile chairs and sofa of the parlor always looked new. For all the wear and tear they got they should have lasted a thousand years.”

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My parents’ families come from the Midwest, as do my wife’s. Everyone had big front porches with swing and coaster seats, as well as comfortable and uncomfortable rooms inside. Some lived in towns and cities, where you could keep an eye on the neighborhood, including all its kids, while catching a breeze out front. Others lived out in the country, where one could watch cars coming across the prairie for quite a distance before their arrival, which gave people time to ready themselves for guests.

Later, as our families dispersed, most stopped spending time out front of their houses, choosing to congregate around grills in the back of their homes. These arrangements became the new norm as America became more suburban.

There’s a tradition in American literature where people congregate on porches. Read Willa Cather, Thomas Wolfe and Harper Lee, Sherwood Anderson or Edith Wharton’s rural tales, and there’s always a scene on a porch swing, or porch steps. Shift past World War II and you enter a different age. Neighborly curiosity and communication disappears. Instead, one gets John Cheever’s ‘The Swimmer,’ the decks and gazebos of Richard Russo’s failing old worlds, multiple scenes in Richard Ford’s cars or back yards, and nary a porch rocker in sight, except as a forlorn memory.

The old towns and cities of the Hudson Valley offer a contrast with the newer developments or rural mansions. As often as not, the porches that remain are now either hidden behind shrubbery or unpopulated, even while they hint at more communal lives now past.

A growing body of writing has picked up on the social and political repercussions of this architectural shift. In the last half-century, “private citizens” have become “consumers.”

“When a family member was on the porch it was possible to invite the passerby to stop and come onto the porch for extended conversation. The person on the porch was very much in control of this interaction, as the porch was seen as an extension of the living quarters of the family. Often, a hedge or fence separated the porch from the street or board sidewalk, providing a physical barrier for privacy, yet low enough to permit conversation,” explained Richard Thomas in a 1975 essay, “From Porch to Patio.” “The porch served many important social functions in addition to advertising the availability of its inhabitants. A well-shaded porch provided a cool place in the heat of the day…The porch also provided a courting space within earshot of protective parents. Older persons derived great pleasure from sitting on the porch, watching the world go by, or seeing the neighborhood children at play.”

Notre Dame University political science professor Patrick Deneen added to Thomas’ thoughts a few years back at frontporchrepublic.com. “By contrast, the patio reflected both new settlement patterns and the increasing desire for privacy and withdrawal from interaction with one’s neighbors…The patio, it was believed, was a symbol and practical expression of our independence, our liberation from the niggling demands of neighbor and community.”

Front Porch Republic has also been publishing a number of essays and poems by Kentucky-based writer Wendell Berry over the years, including his recent collection of poems entitled “A Small Porch” that he writes while sitting outside on Sabbath days.

“What was here that you wanted to change? You changed at first your absence by your presence, having arrived by a hard way over the mountains or along the rivers,” Berry writes in that collection. “Once here, your presence still was a sort of absence, for you learned slowly and late where you were. In ignorance, you destroyed much that was here that you undervalued, much of value that you never knew was here.”

I think of my front porches here. Deep in the Catskills, they were a place from which to watch life pass by. Eventually, my porches were home to couches and stuffed easy chairs, a standing lamp or two, a stereo.

Later, I moved into a town where I never felt quite at home, I put out a porch swing but found myself spending less and less time out there. Because no one else was out, I guess.

Currently living in a city once again, I’ve got a private deck out back. I’m wondering whether I should bring my grill out onto the front sidewalk and start mixing drinks on the stoop so I can join in my neighborhood’s summer fun.

 

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