The American front porch is a slice of heaven. You are fortunate if the homes in your neighborhood have this sure path to community intimacy and friendship. In "Home Sweet Home: American Domestic Vernacular Architecture," Davida Rochlin says: "Nobody thought much about the American front porch when most Americans had them and used them. The great American front porch was just there, open and sociable, an unassigned part of the house that belonged to everyone and no one, a place for family and friends to pass the time."
Homes in older neighborhoods often exhibit gracious front porches that haven't since been commandeered for another use, but that is not the case in more modern housing areas and developments. As lifestyles change with each decade, so does the practical way in which we use our homes. Ranch-style homes in the 1950s, or ranch ramblers, did not feature roomy front porches and instead focused on the back patio and the indoor/outdoor connection. Newly built row houses and urban townhouses sometimes only have a front door that opens unceremoniously onto the street. My neighborhood is about 55 years old, and as I walked my dog the other night I passed at least a dozen homes that have been re-landscaped to create a fenced-in front yard with more privacy. Some feature fire pits and seating arrangements. Others have delightful water fountains. Yet I have never actually seen anyone on nearby streets using their front yard! We seem to be drawn to the privacy of our backyard and living behind closed doors.
There's no doubt that in some places gathering out front in the evening is still honored and aids in building community camaraderie. Is it possible to capture a little sense of that grace even without a real porch? What we seek is a way to lessen the sense of isolation that has been augmented by our fractured contemporary lifestyle. In suburbia we rely on our cars to take us to the market, church, school and work. In urban areas, public transportation throws us together with masses of people, yet true intimacy rarely occurs between strangers on a train. We need help from our architecture and our property structure.
If you create a comfortable place to sit and make an effort to use it, you might be surprised at the people you meet. In a suburban neighborhood, there is an abundance of people walking their dog, but you must be outside in order to speak to them. Introduce a comfortable settee or a glider to one side of your front stoop, and sit there on warm evenings! Some homeowners who live across from a park or a body of water offer community rest spots with the intention of fostering a walking neighborhood. Others offer charming mini-libraries outside their home with free books displayed.
If you have concerns of theft, you could chain your furniture to a tree or to the house. Or, use inexpensive chairs that won't be missed if they are taken. I've had chairs with accent pillows on my front lawn for years with no issue. My husband is fond of sitting out front and talking on his phone, which invites conversation with passersby. Sometimes it's a neighbor who slows their car to chat.
We crave more human connection these days and would be well-served to find ways to nurture conversation over simple things, such as pets, flowers or lawns.
Christine Brun's weekly column, "Small Spaces," can be found at creators.com.