Front Porch, Back Porch, Either Way You’re Welcome HereBlog / Produced by The High Calling
In August, my wife and I and two kids moved into an old house. Bob and Pat to the left (if you’re looking at the house) said we are the eighth residents since they settled here 44 years ago. They hoped we wouldn’t be another set of the Clampetts. We assured them we wouldn’t—while standing in our back yard looking over the fence into their back yard.
I mention this because in 1975, Richard H. Thomas wrote an influential essay on porches for the Iowa State Historical Society. In “From Porch to Patio,” Thomas bemoaned the decline of community due to the architectural shift from porches on the front of a house to patios in the back.
“The porch,” Thomas claimed, “facilitated and symbolized a set of social relationships and the strong bond of community feeling which people during the nineteenth century supposed was the way God intended life to be lived.” I myself, along with many others including new urbanists, have bemoaned the shift, and for many years I looked cynically upon suburban housing plans where not a soul could be seen, “save to empty the nether organs of his dog,” as one commenter noted.
And then we bought our house. It sits on the sidewalk, quite literally, and except for a few stairs leading up to the main door which we use to retrieve the mail, the front is practically deserted. We’ve only been here a few months, but we have already established that our back door is the main door. No one decreed this. It just happened.
Nonetheless, we met Martha who teeters precariously when she turns, and John, who never wears a shirt and must have discovered a mine of silver paint because nearly everything on his property has been blessed with it. There’s Melissa whose four fatherless boys are daily one step away from being hit by a car, Scott the policeman, Don whose wife of 66 years died a month before we arrived and Dominick the red-haired bag boy from the local grocery store. Jack offered his neatly detailed truck to assist our moving in and Chris is wading through a divorce. And then there is Tom next door who mowed my grass that first week because I, as he observantly noticed, “had enough to worry about already.”
Front porch or not, we’re meeting the neighbors.
I don’t have to convince you that American culture values efficiency as well as a strong measure of privacy. Include the option to travel by car rather than foot and the expanding online world of social relationships, and it’s a wonder we know anybody next door. Yet we do.
Thomas reminisced the days before back patios by saying “it was important to know one’s neighbors and be known by them.” For us here at TheHighCalling.org, it still is. The front porch may have migrated but despite Thomas’ assessment, community still happened. Similarly, traditional social settings have migrated (in part) to the internet, yet community still happens. If you’ve been around the TheHighCalling.org and HighCallingBlogs.com for a while, you might even say this migration has added substantially to your life.
“The tension between the need for privacy and the desire to belong to community is still with us. The resolution of this seemingly ever-present conflict in needs and values is, and will be, mirrored in the design of whatever is called a house.”
Thomas didn’t have social media in mind, but I’d like to believe that the design of this place offers a bit of the resolution that concerned him. Like a neighborhood, we have our own lives, yet gather here for fellowship and the exchange of heart and mind. We visit, staying briefly or extendedly, and then return to our own places until we meet again.
As I say to folks like Bob and Pat and Martha and Dominick, we say to you, “Stop over any time. Ring the bell or just come around back. The gate is always open.”
For fun, here are a few instructions on porch/patio etiquette, compliments of Garrison Keillor. Use them on- and off-line:
“The porch is sociable, but certain rules apply:
- Even if you're screened from public view, it's polite to call out hello to passers-by you know. It's up to them to stop or not. It's up to you to invite them in or not. The porch is a room of your house, not part of the yard. Only peddlers or certain ministers would barge right in.
- If you say, 'Why don't you come up and sit for a bit?' it is customary for them to decline politely. If the invite was legit, it should then be repeated.
- An invite to the porch is not an invite to the house. Its terms are limited to a brief visit on the porch, no refreshments necessarily provided unless the occupants have such at hand.
- When the host stands and stretches or says, 'Well-,' the visitor should need no further signal that the visit has ended. Only an oaf would remain longer. If the host says, 'You don't have to run, do you?' this is not a question but a pleasantry.
Humankind knows no finer amenity than the screened porch. It...shines with civility."