Friday, May 20, 2011

On the Front Porch

Why don't people use front porches anymore?

In my hometown, all the old houses, built around the turn of the century, have impressive, wraparound front porches. They have rickety wooden swings that creak under the strain of warm butts and cool summer breezes. These porches bear ornate, spindly banisters and tired, wooden soffits.

A Porch is Porch. Or is it?
But if you look at the majority of homes built in the last 50+ years, rarely will you find a home with a front porch. Instead, I will guarantee that you'll find a back porch, deck, or patio. A barbeque, maybe even a swimming pool, or a trampoline.

What has led to this shift from anterior to posterior in our homes? The porch is a symbol of community, a gathering place for the family and friends. Before the era of Central Air and television, this was the place to go for recreation and relaxation, and it's move from front to back, in my perception, is telling of a greater shift in social behavior.

Vehicular Homicide

Scott Cook, in a fairly thorough exploration of the front porch, attributes the decline in part to the proliferation of vehicles. Noisy streets and noxious fumes driving people inside or behind security fences.

Check out his theories on the evolution of the front porch. Some interesting ideas are explored.

He also brings up the idea of air conditioning as a possible catalyst.The porch used to provide reprieve from the sweltering heat of the home. Windows ventilated to limited success, so often the only escape from the afternoon heat was the breeze and shade of your front porch.

Growing up in a non-air conditioned house in Southeast Iowa, I know this technique well. As teenagers, my sister and I would even sleep on our porch on unbearable summer nights. There was no fear of noise or intruder. Only the incessant mosquitoes and the din of cicadas in the distance.

The Red Scare: Commies on the Porch Swing

Neighbors used to be more than the humans who inhabited the adjacent buildings. They used to be the people you trusted with your kids, the folks you invited to dinner, and the person you asked for a cup of sugar or gallon of gas. But something shifted, seemingly in the 50's and 60's, that made people leery of their neighbors.

Swing Low, Sweet Porch Swing
Was it McCarthy and his communist witch hunt that made everyone afraid of what their neighbors did behind closed doors?

Was it the rise of technology that drew people closer to loved ones across the country and, eventually, across the globe, that made folks less reliant on the company of those down the street?

Was it the efficiency and modernization of goods and services that created a greater ability to be self-sufficient and therefore without the need to visit a neighbor for a favor?

It's hard to say. I think there may be validity in all these ideas, and some combination may be true. It'd be interesting to hear from people who've lived through this shift for some perspective.

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