By Kendra Langdon Juskus
[Ed. note: This article is part of our series of weekly reflections, called Deep Down Things, published on Wednesdays.]
As Black History Month, February gives us the opportunity to reflect on defining moments and movements—some shameful, some glorious—in our country’s history and culture: the abuse and enslavement of human beings; the Civil Rights movement; the presidential election of Barak Obama; the Civil War; segregation; the Harlem Renaissance; the Tuskegee Airmen; the front porch.
The what? That’s right: the front porch.
To mention the advent of the American front porch alongside illustrious cultural milestones like the Civil Rights Act and jazz music is not to diminish the more familiar achievements of African Americans heralded each February. Quite the opposite, it is the importance of the front porch that has been diminished by the technology- and efficiency-obsessed culture we live in today. There is much in that culture that threatens our fundamental humanity with busyness, anonymity, and industrialization. But there is much about the front porch that is human.
According to The American Porch: An Informal History of an Informal Place by Michael Dolan, the concept of the front porch—that sometimes loved, sometimes neglected icon of the American neighborhood—arose in a number of cultures (think of the Greek Parthenon or the porticos of the Roman Empire). But in the 1600s it traveled to the New World on the backs of African slaves who survived the journey across the Atlantic and, upon setting foot on land, were instructed to build their own houses. They built what they had known in Africa: small dwellings fronted by a roofed outdoor area to provide cool shade during the day’s hottest hours and to be a social space that bridged public and private worlds.
This intermediary social nature of the porch is its strongest asset. The porch is a physical space that is both personal to its owner and hospitable to guests and strangers. It is a threshold of community: neither a place of anonymity, nor of complete intimacy. It is a place where new connections are wrought and old connections are strengthened. One can be invited onto a front porch even as a passerby; it provides opportunities for welcoming the stranger.
Contrast the front porch with the back deck, an architectural feature that arose in American neighborhoods in the 1970s. The back deck is purely private, a sanctuary into which only the friends and relatives of the deck owner are admitted. Dolan describes the growing popularity of back deck construction thus:
“Decks got smoother, bigger, and more complex. Backyards started to look like adult Jungle Gyms. Ever-larger jerry-rigged 3-D grids rose behind kraal-like stockade walls that went up overnight in eight-foot sections, prefabricated privacy (or was it spite?) fences that made a backyard into a mystery zone (What were they doing in there?) … The deck became the prime real-world architectural element of the Me Decade.”
I’ll wager that more of us live in homes with back decks than with front porches. My home certainly fits that description. We have a large stoop (and, of course, a back deck), but it’s a little small for hosting a gathering of friends, and it has no roof to shield us from the elements (the original African concept of a cool respite is nowhere to be found).
But the true confession is this: My husband and I don’t use it often because it is an awkward interface between us and our neighbors. We live in a perfectly walkable neighborhood, and lots of folks pass by as we read on the front steps or putter around in the flowerpots, but at best we offer a shy “hello” to each other. After all, what I really want to say is, “This is not only our space. We see you, you see us, and we want to welcome you into a very human space of interaction and maybe, if we’re lucky, friendship.” But we’re fairly new to the area, and shouting that across the front lawn might be overdoing it.
I’m pretty sure we’re not alone in our hesitancy to embrace the awkwardness of our front stoop. It’s difficult to regenerate a front-porch culture in a country that has largely abandoned the physical front porch in favor of air conditioning and television, and, again according to Dolan, in response to perceived stranger-danger and the general fear and suspicion that characterizes much of our post World War world.
So where do we find porch-like spaces of hospitality and welcome? Where do we re-create the neighborhood gathering culture that formed around the front porch?
In many cases we drive away from our homes and neighborhoods to gather with already familiar friends in more neutral territory than an individual’s or family’s residence, pocketing ourselves away in coffee shops or restaurants. These gathering spaces build community to an extent, but they are not homes. They lack the hospitality and personality of a front porch, and demand none of the admittedly awkward, but still crucial, aspects of reaching out and drawing in that comprise a heartfelt welcome. A front porch is immediate and visible to neighbors, fostering interaction that is spontaneous—not planned—and allowing a community to come together in a space in a casual way.
Additionally, while reinvigorating a front porch culture might strengthen a Christian ethic of hospitality and welcome, it also encourages more living en plein air. Walking, gardening, and letting our children play outdoors all become more attractive activities when we know there are eyes on the street (part of writer and urban activist Jane Jacobs’s prescription for safe and healthy cities). We get more exercise and less television when we discover that hanging out with our neighbors is enjoyable, and that walking to a nearby porch for a drink and some conversation is easier and more fulfilling than driving to a coffee shop. We learn more about our local topography and ecology along the way to the neighbor’s porch. We take responsibility for each other: we discover who in our community is in need of prayer, a good meal, or help with a month’s rent. Maybe we even realize that our local streetscape is dangerous, and we gather as a community to give it sidewalks, pedestrian refuge islands, or stop signs so that we can gather together more safely.
It turns out that a front porch is more than a quaint architectural bauble hanging from the front of your house. A front porch mindset can extend a long way out into society. In fact, for this month, in honor of those who introduced this cultural mainstay to our shores, we will explore ways for churches to act as front porches in their communities. Most churches lack a physical front porch façade, but one of the church’s goals—to welcome people into community and foster their flourishing there—is similar to the purpose of the front porch. We’ll look at our churches from a very local, front porch perspective, and consider creative ways that we can, as the Body of Christ, invite folks to walk on over and set a while.
Kendra Langdon is managing editor for Flourish.