Full disclosure. This is not MY porch. In fact this porch belongs to the president of Chautauqua Institution, here in Chautauqua, New York. The little cottage I’m renting this month has a porch, too, although not nearly as scenic. In fact almost every house on the grounds has one, close to the street and easily accessible to anybody walking by.
And people do access them. “I see you’re from Virginia. I used to live in Richmond,” they say. Or “May I pet your dog? I miss my beagle back home.” Or “You look comfortable. Not going to the lecture this morning?”
I love this. I love porches. I buy calendars with porch of the month offerings. I drive by porches and imagine entire novels set there. Whenever I move I tell my Realtors that a porch is first priority. They laugh and ignore me, so I’ve yet to find the perfect house with the perfect porch in the perfect porch community, but I know that “next” time, I’ll be luckier.
Because I need a porch. And so do you.
For many years architects and builders considered a front porch a necessity. This was the place where residents went to catch a breeze, to relax together, to watch the comings and goings on their street. Neighborhood watch programs? Who needed anything official? The porch was the eyes and ears of the community. Then came suburbia, expansive back yards, decks and patios and barbecue grills where friends could relax together away from the observant eyes of everyone else on the street.
“Oh, maybe there’s not much of a front porch at this house,” my Realtor says, “but look what a great back yard it has. And the sunporch. Don’t you love the sunporch?”
Actually, I do love my sunporch. And my oh-so-private backyard just ten minutes from the White House. But I also love my squatty little front porch, not meant to be more, really, than a spot to get out of the rain while I look for my house key. I still sit on the one chair it allows and watch cars pass on the street, children walking to school, neighbors tending their flower beds. Sitting in that beat-up wicker chair, I feel connected to them. They say hello when they pass, or take a few steps my way so we can chat about who’s done what and why. And my real life neighbors are as nice as any here, in this porch community. But getting to know them is a struggle, and sitting there, I always feel like a spy. Out of place. Trying to create a neighborhood that doesn’t quite exist.
Architecture as a barrier to community.
Porch communities aren’t perfect. When you’re thrown together with strangers, you take pot luck. When we rented this house, we were sandwiched between two of the nicest families on record. We were lucky. I understand that might not have been the case. I’ve heard stories. Even here. I am doubly grateful for the people fate set me next to.
But that’s why life is a porch. Because we are in this life together. We are always in community, whether we choose to be or not. And it’s good to be reminded of this, even when we need to go inside sometimes and close the front door.