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!