Front Porches

I had fully intended to continue Signs of Spring as a short series. Maybe I will get a chance, but right now it feels like summer. However, my walks over the past few days of warmer temperatures have shed some new light on a question I have been pondering over the past few months: why don’t I see more people sitting out in front of their houses on their porches or stoops, and what sorts of conditions would need to occur for this to happen more often? I had wondered upon starting this walking project if I would talk to many people who lived in the homes on all of the streets of Berkeley that I was walking. I have had a few conversations, but not as many as I had expected. Ironically, the last time was early on a weekday morning with a woman who was examining the smashed windshield of her car and was stressed about how she was going to get the window fixed, make it to work, find a safer parking spot for her car, etc. We had a good conversation, but it felt slightly odd reassuring someone about a car headache!

In any case, early in the Berkeley walk I found myself sometimes having an idealistic daydream about taking years to finish the walk because I couldn’t make it down one street without having several interesting conversations with the people who lived there. Of course, I knew this really wouldn’t be the case, but I did start to wonder why I could sometimes have walks in residential areas where I barely saw anyone outside their house. My first thought was that long work hours and long commutes meant that many people were not home that often. This could be true in some cases, but Berkeley also has lots of students, people who work at home or not at all, and other alternatives to typical work patterns. Commercial districts are busy at all hours, and streets are rarely empty of cars. And then on weekends, when I do much of my walking, it’s not often that I see someone reading a newspaper or a book on the porch.

Another theory, and a valid one I think, is that many Berkeley houses have small porches. Porches here, for the most part, are not the kind that you might find in other parts of the country that circle the house or are large enough for a porch swing or other seating. Many houses have small chairs on the porch, but not ones that seem comfortable for long sittings; they are more likely used to remove muddy shoes or set down packages before entering the front door. I have also considered the idea, run into the ground in the media, that we are becoming more and more internal, that we spend more time in front of the TV set and the computer and less time outside and socializing with our neighbors. I don’t want to spend too much time on this — most of you have heard or read about this too many times — and I also can’t say for sure whether it is true or not.

All theories aside, what circumstances might cause people to sit on their porch or stoop? I wasn’t sure until I started noticing a pattern of people sitting outside with their cell phones. Whether it’s to get better reception or to gain a bit of privacy from the rest of the household, the porch seems to be a favorite spot for chatting on the mobile phone. Obviously this is completely different than sitting on the porch and talking with people as they pass by; I have not once had anyone look up from their conversation and wave or smile. But perhaps some people will talk to a neighbor after they are done on the phone. One amusing thought I had, as someone who tends to question statistics, is a survey result saying that “people spend x% more time on their porches these days” (with the increase due not to more socializing but the sharp rise in cell phone use).

This week, however, temperatures have been higher that usual for this time of year. Suddenly I have seen all sorts of people outside: kids playing in the sprinklers, people reading books on the stoop, others socializing. Many of the houses here were built without much insulation, and even those who have decent insulation and some fans are not accustomed to high temperatures. Heat waves in an area with normally mild temperatures can bring people out and socializing with neighbors and passers-by. On one short walk to the grocery store I passed a man yelling across the street to offer a neighbor a cold beer, and then talked to some children who were picking strawberries from their front-yard garden.

I hope by the end of this walk to have some other thoughts to share about the lack of porch-sitters, and what might change the situation. As usual, any opinions are welcome!

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6 Comments »

  1. Eric Fischer said

    Not that it probably has much application to residential sections of Berkeley, but City Comforts recently had an item about a smoking ban having the unintended effect of making Seattle’s sidewalks more sociable: http://citycomfortsblog.typepad.com/cities/2007/04/this_phenomenon.html

    My own theory is that what is missing is a critical mass of pedestrians: there have to be enough people on the sidewalks doing things to make it more interesting to look out at them than to read a book or watch TV or something else inside.

  2. Georgia said

    Hello.

    I am a member of the Professional Porch Sitters Union. It’s quite informal, but lots of fun. I have not held too many meetings, but I love sitting on my stoop, when I have time (and when it’s warm). (See my post on August 8, 2006.)

    I am intrigued by the dead cell phones utility pole. Where is it located? My brother told me that bees and other animals are being negatively affected by cell phone technology. I have seen posters against the siting of new cell towers in South Berkeley. Last week I was chastised for using my phone in the laundry-mat last; the gentleman said I was killing bees and other creatures. It’s a very interesting topic and I hope you write more about it.

  3. Spike said

    As a loather of mobile phones, that is my favourite of all your photos.

  4. [...] response to my post about Front Porches, Georgia at Local Ecologist noted that she is a member of the Professional Porch Sitters Union, an [...]

  5. I’ve been meaning to respond to this post for a while. I know that in my case the reason I don’t sit on my porch is because I wasn’t raised that way. I was raised in town that was incorporated in 1898 so it has a mix of Victorians, Craftsmans and others like Berkeley does. It has porches. But it was a sedate suburban town. People interacted with their neighbors, but it wasn’t considered polite to “conduct your business” in your front yard. Children would play in the front yard, people would garden, but you wouldn’t hang out in your front yard. You hung out in your back yard where you could get a little privacy as well as give your neighbors a little break from having to deal with your recreation if they didn’t want to.

    That has meant a huge culture shock for me living in Southwest Berkeley as I have for the last 7 years. People hang out on their porches, hang out on the sidewalk, hang out on their small front lawns, hang out in front of their apartment blocks. I think of it as a big difference between cultures. I’m guessing that in the case of Latinos it comes from the zocalo/plaza culture and in the case of many African-Americans, it comes from Southern cultural traditions. It’s really different from my Irish-Italian suburban upbringing, though! I think there are some socio-economic as well as ethnic cultural differences at play here.

  6. [...] In terms of architectural elements of houses in Berkeley, I’ve talked a little about front porches, windows and what can be see through them, and fences and gates. Lately, for some reason, I have [...]

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