My wife Kathy and I are getting an education on community. We recently moved downtown. Our home has a large front porch. Our previous homes didn’t. They had rear decks. We’re learning why decks and patios make building community difficult.
In 1975 Richard Thomas wrote a little piece, “From Porch to Patio.” He describes how the transition from porch to patio signifies a shift in American society. We went from a concern for private and public things to one of increasing privacy. This shift was signified in homes featuring back decks and patios but no (or very small) front porches.
The porch bridged the gap between the private realm (home) and the public domain (streets and sidewalks). Thomas writes how it “presented opportunities for social intercourse.” When you’re on a porch, you can invite the passerby to stop and come onto the porch. Patios are different. They’re for privacy. If anyone does walk by, they’re probably trespassing.
This break between private and public goes back to the early 1800s. Tocqueville coined a term, describing an American as “the individualist.” He predicted Americans would retreat into a “small circle” of friends and family. No need for bridges between private and public. You can observe this trend in architecture, the built environment. Porches began to disappear in the 20th century. Take Baltimore for example.
When you drive north from downtown, you encounter blocks of row houses with marble steps and, later, front porches close to one another. Further north, suburbs spring up (the 50s). Larger lots. Houses further off the street. Next is the modern 60s. Porches shrink, becoming ornamental. By 70s and 80s, rear decks are the norm.
Add to this air-conditioning. We keep windows shut year round. We don’t hear neighbors anymore. With the addition of garages and garage door openers, we enter our home from the privacy of our cars. Today, the built environment encourages increasing privacy, shielding us from the niggling demands of neighbors.
Small wonder housing developments in the 50s were called “subdivisions”—a mathematical term. They aren’t communities. Big front yards and rear patios ensure that faux porches (too cramped for seating and too far from sidewalks) are not bridges.
For years I understood this only on a theoretical level. Then we moved to downtown Annapolis. No yard. A large porch snuggled up to the sidewalk and street. Hundreds of townspeople walk by everyday. In the summer the porch is shaded and cool. When the leaves are down, the winter sun warms the porch. We live outside almost year ‘round.
In a little over a year we’ve enjoyed many serendipitous encounters just sitting on our porch. That’s the power of porches. A few weeks back, two 20-somethings—Jeremy and Maca—were walking by. We said hello from our porch. They said they’d always admired our home. We invited them in. It turns out Jeremy knows our son Mark. We’re having dinner with this couple in a few weeks.
In his book, “The Vanishing Neighbor,” Marc J. Dunkelman says people are good at tending their inner-ring relationships—their family and friends. They’re pretty good at tending to outer-ring relationships—their hundreds of Facebook acquaintances or, for Christians, their church, which they have to drive to. It’s not in any neighborhood. But Americans spend less time with middle-ring relationships—the neighborhood. Middle-ring friendships are formed by serendipitous encounters, the neighbor whose political opinions you find abhorrent. In a neighborhood, you find ways to work together.
Dunkelman’s work dovetails with Oliver Roy’s Holy Ignorance. Roy begins by noting that religion, though still obviously an important part of modern society, has been relegated to the private sphere, becoming an increasingly private “interior” search for spiritual well-being. Faith communities of every stripe increasingly withdraw from neighborhoods and the broader culture. They aren’t really neighbors.
When Jesus was asked Who is my neighbor?, he replied it’s the wrong question. Be a neighbor. Being a neighbor means appreciating the famous first line of Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” He meant that for marriages to flourish, they must succeed in many different respects: sexual attraction, agreement about money, child discipline, religion, in-laws, and so on. Failure in any one respect can doom a marriage. Same goes for community. They require many things—walkable towns, places to go, people to see, safe streets, building codes that permit houses snuggled close together. And they require porches.
As I said, Kathy and I are getting an education. The gap between the private and public domain has widened too far. The New Urbanists get this. They understand Churchill’s maxim. We shape our building and then they shape us. New Urbanists are building homes with front porches. Christians serious about building community would benefit from understanding how the built community shapes us in ways big and small.
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