When I was a kid, back when the world was analog and not yet digital, we lived outside the house more than inside. I remember in the summer, I would leave the house right after breakfast, gather a few neighbor friends, and would not come home until I was hungry, hurt, or it was dinner time. After dinner, I would go back out until the porch lights came on. Outdoors was the place to be and indoors was where you would be if you were being punished. Sure, thunderstorms and blizzards caused exceptions to be made but only until Mom said the coast was clear and then it was back out in the world again. Once I was old enough to have a full-size two-wheeled bike, not only was I outside, I was gone – with a capital G. Sports were our pastimes on most days. You could tell the season by what game the kids were playing. The houses where I grew up had porches, front, and back. You could tell where your friends were by the bikes laying in front of the porches. The back porches tended to be screened in to allow air flow on hot days and to keep the bugs out. The front porch had a different purpose, it was where the family would sit in the evenings or during the day on weekends. Neighbors would wave as they came and went, and there was a true sense of community. This was a time when women were able to stay home and be full-time mothers. It was not unusual to come home from school to see your mom and another or two sitting on the porch having coffee, tea, or a lemonade. For us kids out playing it was also comforting to know that most homes had a mom who could help in an emergency. There were many rainy days when my friends and I would play games on the front porches while it rained. I remember a few summer nights that we so stifling hot that we slept on the porch where it was cooler. In the winter, we still played outdoors but the front porch was more of a place to kick the snow off your boots and store the snow shovels and firewood. It also was a convenient place to hang Christmas lights and decorations.
The porch has been an American symbol ever since the country was founded. The large antebellum homes of the 1700s and 1800s all had immense wrap around porches. Neighbors would come onto the porches to visit and share food and drink. Parties took place outside as well as in the home. Houses in the cities, often rows of them, had front stoops and stairs that served as porches. Life was lived outside on the porch. Kids played in the street and adults gathered on the steps and porches to talk. In the eras before the television, internet or even full telephone service, the front porch was how information and gossip were transmitted. If you wanted to know what was going on, you needed to be outside and in the conversation. During the summer it was not unusual to see a family sitting there listening to a baseball game or mystery show on the radio. It was often just too hot to be inside. The iconic porch in America has been pictured in many movies and television shows. Communities had sidewalks where people out for a stroll could wave at neighbors sitting on their porch and even stop for a few minutes to exchange pleasantries or news. The porch was a buffer between public and private life. Folks could entertain out on the porch without inviting anyone inside the house. This made it easier to socialize without having to clean the house first.
After World War II, American values such as family, community, and nature seemed to change. The architecture of homes evolved with the porch being less and less prominent. Indoor air conditioning also meant less time spent outdoors during hot summers. There wasn’t a need for the overhang above a porch to lessen the heat in the house. The increased use of automobiles meant less foot traffic past homes as well as more noise and air pollution. Gradually, communities moved indoors after being centered outdoors for many generations. Now, we drive past some of the old neighborhoods with homes that have great porches, but we don’t see people sitting on them very often. A sign of the times. Some people would blame electronics for this. Kids tend to be inside more with the television and video games. Mom and Dad, too. A good book and a rocking chair seem appropriate for outdoor living, Google and Facebook not so much.
For many years, we lived in southern California in a very densely populated area. Homes are a little different there. Property is very expensive so a home tends to be placed on smaller lots in tightly packed tracts, or subdivisions. We lived in a community where the attached garage was entered via a paved alleyway behind the house. The house was what is called a “patio” home. Basically, on a zero lot line, the side patio ended with the next door neighbors house wall. There wasn’t a front porch, just an entry door on the front side of the house. We really didn’t see neighbors much at all. Kids didn’t play in the streets and moms had to work outside the home because of the high cost of living there.
After selling our house in California, Karen and I were fulltime RVers for a few years until we decided to buy a home in western North Carolina. This was about this time last year. We made lists of what we wanted in a house, within the limitations of what we could afford. Among the top requirements were a really nice friendly neighborhood and a front porch. For a long time, we traveled the area looking at different towns and communities, dreaming of the house that we would end up buying. We saw so many homes that had beautiful porches with inviting wood rocking chairs on them. As we drove by, I waved every once in a while at someone sitting in front of their house. We didn’t know them and they didn’t know us, but it was fun to see how many waved back. I think that would be a good way to choose a neighborhood to live in. We did find a home to buy, a nice brick house on a large corner lot. It even has a large porch with a patio cover over it. The porch is on the side of the house where the driveway and detached garage are. The front of the house has a small porch, but since the side entry is what is used, it really is not as functional as a proper sitting porch. We bought the house and moved in on December 3, 2017. We quickly realized that sitting on the porch, we could see neighbors as they drove past on both the front street and the side street. We started waving and keeping track of which cars belonged to which houses. People slowed as they passed and waved back. Karen started knocking on doors and introducing herself and one by one, neighbors would stop by when we were on the porch and we got to know each other.
Karen’s studio office is in the front corner of our house with windows looking out at the corner and both streets. My desk is in front of a window looking out onto the porch. We love the inside of our home, but we really love taking the breaks and sitting on the porch, waving to the neighbors, and talking about how blessed we are to be in this home and in this neighborhood, town, state, and country. We are happy to help to bring back a sense of old-fashioned neighborhood to where we live.
So, if you are in the area and happen to pass by, look for us. We are the couple on the porch who are waving at you even if we haven’t met yet. Please wave back or stop by and say hello. We’ll even leave the porch light on for Y’all.
This article first appeared in Issue 9 of Faith On Every Corner.