Monday, July 03, 2006

THE FRONT PORCH VS. THE BACK DECK

DSCN1477
Ted on the front porch of the house where he grew up

The first house we owned was located in a small town in Western Massachusetts. It was built around 1900 and had a breakfast nook, built in book shelves, a stained glass window--and a wide front porch. From that porch you could see the mountains, or you could hit the sidewalk and be downtown in five minutes. I loved that house so much I wanted to live forever so I would never have to leave it.

In the summer, we put some second hand wicker furniture on the porch and hung pots full of red and orange flowers. After supper we would sit out in our thrift store chairs and greet the people passing by on the sidewalk. I was expecting a baby on September 3rd and by the end of August, everyone in the neighborhood was excited about the coming event.

"You still here?" they'd say when they saw me sitting on the porch in mid-September.

"Still here," I'd say, stroking my belly as pregnant women have done throughout the ages.

Then they'd linger for a chat, or to pet our dog, Sadie.

The first day I failed to appear on the porch, Ted said the doorbell rang constantly.
One neighbor brought pink balloons to hang from the porch; another made lasagna. Everyone was eager to see the baby.

A couple of years later we moved to the town where we now live. Our new house was built in the seventies. Though it didn't have the character of the place we left, it had a big back yard, lots of privacy, and a deck. In the summer, I would drift out there with my coffee and a notebook. The thick foliage provided such a good screen that I didn't even have to get out of my pajamas if I didn't feel like it.

Over the years, I've watched the kids cooking imaginary dinners from dirt, playing in their vinyl pool, whacking wiffle balls, and celebrating birthdays. I've listened to symphonies of birds, and drunk wine with friends, and written a novel long hand--all sitting on that deck. I've laughed a lot. For me, there is no sight more beautiful than the light that comes through the trees at the back of the property around dusk.

And yet, in eighteen years, I've never come to know my neighbors the way I did in the house with the front porch. The only times I see them in front of their houses is when they climb into their cars to go to work. Otherwise, they, too, are cossetted inside or on their own back decks. We wave to one another from our vehicles or over the roar of the lawn mower.

Maybe this is just me and my neighborhood, but I don't think so. In many ways to our detriment, we have become a "back deck" society. An article I read in the Sunday paper said that Americans are now lonelier and more isolated than ever. Though scientists tell us that the number of friends we have is an indicator of how long we will live, many of us have increasingly few.

And yet, I think the human spirit has a way of getting what it needs. Through the web, I've shared my days and my thoughts with passersby from all parts of the globe; and I've come to care deeply about people I've never seen. Maybe this, the virtual community we create for ourselves, is the new front porch.

41 comments:

floots said...

i suppose i have made a similar move to yours in some ways and i really enjoyed reading this

what a beautiful thought to take into the day - the net as the new front porch

thank you

tinker said...

I really love your concept of all of us in this virtual community, sitting on our front porches, waving and calling out to those who pass by. Lovely!

marja-leena said...

Yes, lovely piece. The virtual porch is definitely the new reality.

rdl said...

Nice post and i think you are right.

Brenda said...

Especially for quiet, solitary, introspective writers, the NET provides a marvelous community.

I dream of a porch. Your post heart-warming and inspiring...

Patry Francis said...

floots: glad that something resonated with you.

tinker: thanks for waving back!

marja-leena: Thank you--and thanks, too, for all that I've learned on your porch, especially for the artists who I might never heard about otherwise.

r: Hope to see you on the real porch some time soon.

brenda: Yes, the net is great for writer types, though in some ways it feeds our natural introversion to much. That's why I keep waitressing!

Stephanie said...

Wow. That's a very clever thought. I never considered that blogs and the Internet created a sort of front porch, but I think you're right!

zhoen said...

So... hot enough for ya?

Kerstin said...

Patry,

I love American front porches, they are like a little haven of cosiness, flowers, light, warmth, social interaction and communication. It is one of my main regrets about living in a condo, the lack of outside space and a front porch in particular. I frequently drive past homes just as you describe but you know what, I don't often see people sitting on their beautiful porches, perhaps I am just passing at the wrong time of day?

Your post also made me think about how we made friends with our neighbors in Germany when I grew up? We don't really have houses with front porches and in some ways we have always had more of a garden and balcony culture, all located at the back of homes. Socialising happened through the children I suddenly realised. Because we would play outside, in the front, in the street, in the neighborhood - freely. We knew every house and who lived in it and where we could get a drink if it got thirsty or seek shelter from a thunderstorm if we had roamed too far from our home.

And then I look at my husband's son who lives in one of those exclusive bedroom communities, in a huge and beautiful house. It's a perfect place for kids to roam but I never see anyone outside when we go and pick him up. So I asked him: do you ever play with your friends outside? Do you go cycling, have adventures, or play ball in the (quiet) streets? The answer is no. It's not that kind of neighbourhood he says. Plus he lives more of an indoor life in general, watching TV and playing video games most days.

Is this where we are heading, into virtual insularity?

Ok, I am not quite sure how I got here, but your post has touched more than one nerve about friendships and cultural differences and development.

Hope you don't mind my stopping by your virtual front porch for a bit longer than usual :)

Kerstin

Sustenance Scout said...

Patry, thanks for stopping by BEYOND Understanding. I love your front porch photo. Kerstin would've gotten a similar answer from my son, a somber thought. He and his dad do a lot together, but otherwise his buddies are from school and play dates are arranged. His one good friend in the neighborhood recently moved to Houston. While we just enjoyed a great neighborhood bike parade this morning with local firefighters here to soak the kids, we're usually so busy we rarely take time to just hang out with neighbors. So I'd add that the disjointed feel of modern neighborhoods is a result of a few things: our overscheduled lifestyles (my mom never signed us up for classes; we just went out to play!) and the multiple moves so many are forced to make, often for career reasons. It takes a lot of effort nowadays to get to know the neighbors, but it's certainly worth it. If I could only convince my son of that. It's fun, too, to stop by a virtual front porch like yours, especially when the conversation is so engaging!

Jordan E. Rosenfeld said...

This made me weep. I had this same thought about porches when I lived in a town without any and then moved to one where there were lots. I too believe that the porch was the old way of networking. I hope you're right about the web...since that's where we find ourselves now.

xo
J

Darius said...

I know what you mean. To me, it's always felt like I develop "relationships" with places as well as people.

Patry Francis said...

Stephanie: I didn't think much about it either until I started missing my front porch.

zhoen: Sure is; can I offer you a lemonade?

kerstin: Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment and for all the questions it raised, many of which I was pondering, too.

You say that when you pass the beautiful front porches in your town, they are empty. We've noticed the same thing in the coal mining town where Ted grew up. Though every duplex came equipped with a porch, nearly all of them are empty whenever we walk there. "Where are the children?" we ask.

It's not just the architecture; it's the way people live now--and as I said this has increasingly become a back deck society.

Most people over thirty remember spending long days outdoors, playing games, fighting imaginary wars, claiming the neighborhood as our own. We are baffled when we see our children captivated by video games and choreographed activities.

Though we are certainly enriched by the technological wonders in our lives, there's no doubt something has been lost in the process. I love my friends in the blogosphere, but they can't bring me chicken soup when I'm sick, feed my cat when I'm away,or remind my kids to slow down on their bikes in traffic.

That takes real flesh and blood neighbors.

And yet, I remain both grateful for what I have--all of you; and optimistic that when we reach "the tipping point" the old-fashioned sense of community will return.

sustenance: Growing up, the streets of my neighborhood were as familiar to me as the rooms of my own house, or the lines on the palm of my hand. In fact, I can still mentally walk those streets and name the occupants in every house; and I'm saddened that my children can't do the same. You pinpoint the causes accurately: we move frequently; we're busy; we don't have time to know the neighbors. Thanks for stopping by to join the conversation.

jordan: I share your sadness over the loss of the front porch, but I'm grateful that the virtual porch has introduced me to people like you, who might never have passed my street otherwise.

Patry Francis said...

darius: (must have x-posted) Yes. Different relationships with different places, and also with different times in our lives. Thanks for visiting.

g said...

I'm not sure why children today need to have their social activities organized by adults. And why, when there are no events scheduled, they turn to video entertainment. In A Pattern Language, Christopher Alexander and friends describe how architecture and community are inter-related. Inside and outside. Front porch and back porch. All of these have social contexts. I guess some patterns have definitely changed for the children.

colleen said...

You've made me feel all nostaligic, thinking about all the places of lived. Right now, out here in the country, I can't even see my neighbor's house. I'm a tad anti-social, and so I like it this way. I don't know if I would have liked it when I was younger and wanted more stimulation.

Fred Garber said...

Patry,
Your post brought back memories for me. My mom and I always lived in apartments that were in front porch neighborhoods. Later when I had my own house it was a back deck neighborhood. Now I live in an apartment in a front porch neighborhood. People in this neighborhood still use the front porches alot. This is a lower income area and it feels better than the deck place!

Jean said...

Patry, how wonderfully put, and how close my feelings are to yours! Though I've never lived in a 'front porch' neighbourhood. I suppose for me it was my twenties in communal houses and the close left/feminist/alternative community in a provincial city. My blog-friends are a wonderful, new and irreplaceable community. Sharing each others' day-to-day ups and downs has been amazing. Such an unexpected blessing. This whole experience has made me regret even more, though, my lack of day-to-day contact with even the closest of my friends in the off-line world. Living in London, the people I've made friends with at work, evening classes, shared hobbies etc often live from one to three hours' journey from me, and all, of course, have the typical super-busy big-city lifestyle. We talk and meet up so rarely compared with friends in the blogosphere. (As for neighbours - forget it! I just about know the names of the people in the other apartments in my building). This has made me keener, rather than less keen, to make my home somewhere with more sense of local community and a few friends around whose company doesn't have to be 'booked' weeks in advance.

Bill Cameron said...

I can't add anything that someone else hasn't already said better, but I did want to say thank you to everyone for the wonderful discussion, and to Patry for starting it for us all.

Sharon Hurlbut said...

It's always a pleasure to find you here on your front porch, Patry!

For most of my life I've been painfully shy (a condition I've mostly overcome since becoming a parent, because I simply don't have the luxury of being unable to communicate with people any longer) and 'meeting' folks via the virtual front porch comes more easily to me than on a real one. I'm so glad to be a part of this community!

Mary said...

The new front porch This makes me think.

I agree with your comment Patry - a mixture of blogging AND waitressing is best! On its own blogging is a little too adept at feeding introversion.

And the wonderful thing about the real front porch is the ability to see the person. To read their body language as well as hear their words. There are so many times too that I feel that I would love to go for a cup of tea and a chat with one or other of my blogging friends ...

Maybe one day.

chuck said...

I grew up in Western Massachusetts in Berkshire County in the 1940's and 1950's (except for a couple of years spent in Pakistan and India as a child).

It seems incredible now, but from age 7 on I could wander all over town until dinnertime- and often after dinner- without my parents needing to worry about my safety.

In the 1940's and 1950's Williamstown, Massachusetts, was a pretty ideal place for a boy to grow up. It really was a COMMUNITY!

I wonder if communitarian values are still as ascendent in the Williamstown of today.

Sara said...

After 11 years together, we have finally begun shopping -- slowly, very slowly -- for our dream house. We agree that this house will have both a front porch and a backyard with a deck (or room for one), and that it will be in this delightful town where people walk everywhere.

In the last place we lived, I feel I only got to know my neighbors because I smoked and my boyfriend wouldn't tolerate it in the house, so I often smoked on the concrete front steps facing our heavily driven road with the double yellow line down the middle. (Our dream house will be on a street with no lines down the middle.) Often I did this in my bathrobe, in varying states of deshabille. But this is when I saw the other people who lived near us, waved to them, and exchanged pleasantries across the traffic. This is how and when I created bonds with them that outlived my smoking habit and grew into real friendships.

Where we live now, I only know my neighbors because I garden and fill bird feeders in the front yard. We meet and greet each other as they walk their dogs or as the children among them drift by in clots on their way to the local creamery.

Someday we will have it all: bird feeders, garden, porch -- and no smoking! We will still spend far too much time online -- which is, you're right, another porch, another café -- and we will still also walk to the creamery ourselves, and to the various local "real" cafés. I will still perch in my studio windows and spy lovingly on people walking by with their dogs and children, as I do now.

We are solitary, creative, intellectual types. But the world is so big, and our lives are so short. Neither of us sees the point if we don't at least leave openings somewhere.

Dave said...

Yes! Thank you, Patry - i've been waiting a long time for someone to write this post! I love my front porch - even if people rarely happen by this far out in the country. The comments are illuminating, too. A little off-topic, but as a former smoker, I second Sara's remark about the way that habit brings people together. Riding Greyhound buses was a much more social experience for me when i got off to join the smokers' huddle at every stop.

P. A. Moed said...

Yes, you're absolutely right. By facing the back yard, we've cut outselves off from so much life in the front. We have 2 back decks and one side deck. The back decks face the water, so in the summer there's a stream of people heading to the beach. Maybe that's why I like this place so much.

Patry Francis said...

Yes, I miss my front porch, but I must admit the conversation was never as good as it is here.

Thanks for all the terrific comments.

Laini Taylor said...

Great post, Patry -- I have very conflicted feelings about front vs back porch, because on one level I love the idea of community, and love that your neighbors knew right away when you failed to appear; but on the other hand I value that feeling of solitude the back deck provides, though I think Americans in general (me in particular) go way overboard on privacy.

Also wanted to let you know I finished that Sunday Scribblings short story about the curse and have emailed it to interested readers, but didn't have your email; if you'd like, just email me and I'll send it your way! Thanks!

paris parfait said...

Excellent points! The virtual porch is quite something. But it can't replace the personal contact of seeing the same neighbours every day. Then again, do we really want to see our neighbours every day? :) Lovely post.

chuck said...

"You sure got yourself one busy front porch...will you please keep your voices down so we can get a little 'shut-eye' over here?"

pohanginapete said...

The idea of the virtual front porch certainly has a lot going for it, Patry. I'm inclined to agree with Mary, though. A virtual cup of tea can't warm me in quite the same way as a real cuppa... Still, I'm delighted to be able to have these sorts of conversations as well. Perhaps the virtual porch brings us close enough together to realise what we're missing.

Anonymous said...

yes, yes, yes . . . the internet is the new conduit for saying howdy and sharing a heartfelt chat . . . amen for that . . . :)

chiefbiscuit said...

And yet, I think the human spirit has a way of getting what it needs.

So true! Front porch, back porch - it doesn't really matter - i can relate to this as I did a litle cleaning of our particular 'back porch' today.

Marilyn said...

That had never occurred to me, but I think you're right. It IS the 'new front porch.' No wonder we all love it so much. (We live in a tiny duplex...our unit has the front yard. I used to wish we had the backyard...but now I wouldn't trade my tiny little porch with wicker loveseat for anything.) :)

finnegan said...

Although I love the idea of the Net being the new front porch, there'll never be anything that replaces face-to-face communication.

If I lived in total isolation with all the virtual community at my fingertips, I'd eventually want to go to a pub, ride a tram, or, well, chat with a neighbor.

I like having my chocolate cake and eating it, so I'll just take my laptop outside, chat with the neighbors and squirrels while my digital digits pixie pimp the pixels round the planet.

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Sue said...

I found this on an image search for adding a front porch to a house. We have a small front porch with curved steps that are falling apart. My husband wants to take the whole thing out and have a big porch-but it would be a deck with no roof- put there. We also have a deck that his dad built when he lived here.

Your post reminded me that we have new neighbors who sit on their front porch and smoke. I can't be out for any length of time when they're out there. They also fight and swear at each other a lot. Hmm, I don't think I want to spend a lot of money on a front porch.

I wonder if you still blog. It's been a couple years since you wrote this. We'll see!

Sue

lunawilder said...

What a nice writing. What i had entered into a sort of open web search led me here. I hope you are right about the web being the new front porch. I love them both.

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