A porch is a covered space located at the front of a dwelling. Porches serve as thresholds connecting two worlds — the public realm of the street and the private domestic interiors. Porches remain deeply rooted in the psyche of community-based cultures of North America because these spaces are sites of sociability and conviviality. On the one hand, being adjacent to the street, the porch is a very public space. On the other hand, porches serve as an intimate space, an integral part of the home.
In a pre-automobile era, life on the streets, “animated and sometimes disorderly” made porches important social hubs. Public spaces, streets, and plazas represented the vibrancy of local communities and the porch connected citizens to that animated world. By the twentieth century, urban spaces started to be reclaimed and redesigned to serve the automobile, turning streets into mere carriageways and efficient transportation corridors. Homes in the Sherman Park area were built in the 1920s, when the automobile was becoming popular and commonplace. But the porch remained a salient part of the neighborhood architecture.
The 1930 manuscript census shows that neighborhood residents worked in nearby factories. They lived in close proximity to their place of work. We can easily imagine life on a typical neighborhood street every morning, when people left for work on foot. Many walked to the streetcar stops to get to the city. Children occupied the sidewalks later during the day. Parents sat outside on their front porches while keeping their eyes on the kids. Others conversed with neighbors across the fence. Sidewalks and streets were filled with people. In such a walkable environment, the porch served as a hub, where adults socialized, kids played, elders watched people on the street, and residents chatted with neighbors. Archival photos from the 1970s and 1980s show the front yard and porches occupied by lively families and friends. But porches continued to lose relevance to the residents. Porch sitting and the concomitant interactions with neighbors declined rapidly. Porches lost their significance slowly, and today, in Sherman Park, many residents resist using their porches, instead retreating into their backyard for outdoor socializing.
Walkability seems to have decreased in the twenty-first century Sherman Park neighborhood. People hop in and out of their cars and enter their home from the back garage. Strained relationships between renters, landlords, and homeowners in the neighborhood have reduced interactions across the porch. Our interviews with residents indicate that porches no long serve their original purpose. Instead most socializing and outdoors activities have gradually moved away from the street and to the backyards.
Yet, residents such as Cheri Fuqua intend to take the street back for the people. She engages with her neighbors across the street and plants beautiful gardens to make the streets safe and populated. Tremerell Robinson boasts how her flower patch encouraged her neighbors to plant flower beds. Camille Mays works on a project that transforms roadside memorials into small garden lots. Some children continue to play on the street and occupy the porches. Will the popularity of porches return and transform the sociability of this neighborhood?
As an architectural student, I am often under the impression that if you provide a place for community engagement, people will come. But that is not the case. It really depends on the people, their culture, and habits. Porches have served their purpose and seem to be have gone out of favor. In order to make porches relevant again, we need to focus on making the neighborhood a safe and walkable space.
Michele Norris, "Sitting on the Porch: Not a Place, But a State of Mind," All Things Considered, PBS, July 28, 2006
Published on May 17, 2016. Columnist Sean Dietrich—on porches, and the lost, but gentle art of sitting without doing.