America Rediscovers Its Love of the Front Porch
This story first appeared on CityLab. Find the original here.
Two years ago, Scott Doyon saw the chance to organize a kind of concert that was unheard of in the Atlanta metro area. It was a remarkably homey concert for a city, defined primarily by its venue: front porches.
Doyon, a spiky-haired former musician, thought maybe 25 bands would sign up. He got 130. Spectators hopped the train to Decatur, a streetcar suburb of Atlanta, by the thousands. More than 100 porches throughout Decatur’s historic Oakhurst neighborhood hosted bands. “Where we ended up, both for bands and people, was a number that wasn’t even on the pipe dream list,” he says. “I was completely blown away.”
What Doyon tapped into was a thoroughly unexpected 21st-century phenomenon. The Porchfest is a set of DIY music festivals that started in a single upstate New York town in 2007 and has grown organically in the decade since. They’ve popped up in cities and towns across North America. In 2015, 46 Porchfests were recorded. In 2017, the number was up to 104.
The original idea sprouted in Ithaca, New York, among neighbors who were playing ukelele in front of their houses. “Doesn’t a porch make a great stage?” they observed. Those neighbors have gladly helped other U.S. and Canadian cities copycat the idea. Porchfests have most recently cropped up in cities like Minneapolis and San Antonio, along with suburbs like Atlanta’s Decatur and idyllic small towns like Wellfleet, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod.
These days, Doyon (50) handles communications for an urban planning and design firm. In October he organized Decatur’s third annual Oakhurst Porchfest, scaled up this year to 220 bands (and complete with a Millennial-organized electronic-dance afterparty). With the Porchfest, Doyon realized, a new connection has developed between his old music gig and his new profession. To younger urbanites, he says, porches look like stages. In the Instagram age, the front steps have become places to see and be seen, throw a rocking concert or party, and to foster metropolitan community in a walk-by, stop-in-for-wine sense. "Not by design but by accident—by having strangers descend on their yard, having a musician play, sharing a beer, and meeting some new folks—I gave all these people a tool to look at what porches mean in a new way," Doyon says.
As a word alone, "porch" is trending, especially in big, techie cities.
Much farther north, Shelley Glica sees something percolating, too. The Buffalo native organized her second annual Porchfest in August in Niagara Falls, Ontario. Glica, 43, evokes a hipster mama in thick Prada frames and arm-wrapping tattoos. In the warmer months, on her own front steps, she also hosts a “Stories From the Porch” series of speakers on art, history, and culture. Her events have attracted participants as young as 11, who—like her twentysomething kids—love hanging out on the porches. Glica takes pleasure in redefining her community’s relationship to an American architectural feature once dismissed as old-fashioned. “It’s subtle,” she says. “In 10 years we’re going to go, ‘When did that happen?’ But it’s definitely happening.”
What Doyon and Glica are doing represents a generational rethinking of the front porch. Porch-building is on the rise across the country, up 23 percent on new homes from two decades ago. That fact excites city designers, and it may well be linked to the U.S. urban renaissance—but the classic American porch isn’t being used in quite the practical way it once was. Through Porchfests and beyond, the front steps are taking on a new life—one that’s stylish, sporadic, and often more image-conscious.
From Presidents to Techies
The roots of the North American porch go back centuries, inspired by design features all over the world. In his book “The American Porch: An Informal History of an informal Place,” historian Michael Dolan asserts that slaves combined the precolonial African housefront with the native Arawak “bohio” in the Caribbean. West Africans had used an area in front of their home during the hot daytime hours, shading it with a roof supported by poles and elevating it a few feet to keep away biting insects. That kind of indoor-outdoor living, folklorists believe, was echoed in the Arawak bohio, the shaded, partially open dwellings built by one of the Caribbean’s dominant tribes. Planters then willingly mimicked the shaded housefronts on little shotgun houses, which spread north on the American mainland.
There were other cultural influences on the porch, too: Dutch settlers introduced the stoop. Spanish colonials built portals. The English brought the idea for elegant loggias like the ones they’d admired in Italy. “As [the] loggia was becoming fashionable in England, the less classical structure known variously as the piazza, the gallerie, and the veranda was insinuating itself into the vernacular architecture of the Caribbean and North America,” Dolan writes. “All these elements blended into what we know as the porch through a process folklorists call creolization.”
In the young United States, the porch became a signature of the proud new Federal architectural style. It developed a folk-mythic history from Mount Vernon and Monticello onward. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson set the trend with grand-entrance platforms to their estate houses. James Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, and William McKinley were all elected president after successful front-porch campaigns, a tactic popular in the late 1800s in which candidates stayed home and asked voters to come to their homes if they wanted to hear a campaign speech. For everyone else, the porch worked as a spot to do homely chores like shuck beans, or just to catch a breeze when it got broiler-hot in the house.
But then the middle of the 20th century beckoned. Cooling porches were less needed because of A/C, and less wanted because of TV. The more secluded back deck came into favor, too. No longer strictly necessary, the country’s front-porch-building fell off.
After being considered outdated and rural, the porch has recently re-emerged as urbanized and in demand. As a word alone, "porch" is trending, especially in big, techie cities: The Front Porch is the name of an Austin web design and development conference. A restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission District. A Denver lounge bragging about its “cheap drinks, friendly bartenders, great networking, and lots of fun people.”
Porches are “still popular for aesthetic purposes,” but people really aren’t using them much.
A porch is no longer just an artifact of nostalgic Americana. Now the term is shorthand for a fresh and modern kind of welcome that younger generations crave. Whether it’s something coincidental or subconscious, it’s increasingly used for festivals, businesses, and events that draw people out by the hundreds or thousands. A contemporary-worship service called The Porch, for instance, draws 3,000 Millennials to a Dallas megachurch every Tuesday night. The service is simulcast around the country, inviting twenty- and thirtysomethings in places like Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to—at least virtually—“pull up a chair every week.”
Revisiting the Physical Porch
As a physical place, too, the once-grandfatherly old porch is tempting new generations. The number of new U.S. homes built with porches keeps rising. The percentage grew from 42 percent in 1994 to 52 percent in 2004 to 65 percent last year, according to data compiled by the National Association of Home Builders. The latest figures rise to 86 percent in the Southeast, where porches always made the most sense for cooling off, and they’re growing in places like Colorado as well. More Millennials than any other age group now want a porch, the association’s 2016 survey shows. In October REALTOR Mag brought the trend home by proclaiming to every licensed agent: “Porches Are Making a Comeback.”
The foundation for the porch-building boomlet may have been laid three decades before, when a contingent of Baby Boomers trying to fix sprawl started the New Urbanism movement. In 1990 they built a walkable model community, Seaside, Florida, and stacked it with front porches. New Urbanism drew in part on the ideas of urban theorist Jane Jacobs. She’d argued that “eyes on the street”—the ability for people to actually see the street from inside their rooms, storefronts, and front stoops—kept neighborhoods safer. Porches could enable watchful eyes, new architectural thinkers believed, and build community as well.
“It’s a stage for how life unfolds between the public sphere and the private sphere.”Claude Stephens
Other fresh-designed developments have followed the New Urbanism template, but with mixed results. They beg the question: Do people truly use porches these days, or just like the idea of them? Florida State researcher Mary Elizabeth Smallwood chose the “typical New Urbanist community” of Southwood, near Tallahassee, for an observational study of actual front-porch usage in 2007. Her findings showed that porches are “still popular for aesthetic purposes,” but people really aren’t using them much. “Porches have become more of a design element rather than the functional place they have been in the past,” she wrote.
There’s a group of people working to change that. At another community built new with porches, the Mill at Plein Air outside the college town of Oxford, Mississippi, porch enthusiasts hosted the country's first Conference on the Front Porch last year. History-minded participants—like straw-hatted, dry-humored Claude Stephens—took in talks and music on porches, even a play. Stephens is a seventh-generation Louisvillian. He got national attention a few years ago for announcing that he’d formed the Professional Porch Sitters Union Local 1339. (Its credos, like everything else about it, are unofficial. Example: “Anyone can call a meeting at any time, and attendance is optional.”) Stephens’ inbox is still thousands of emails deep with messages from people enthusiastic about the idea, although he hasn’t taken any of their suggestions yet. Another of his mottos: “Sit down a spell. That can wait.”
Stephens is the kind of guy who’s fascinated by the way William Faulkner used the porch as a literary construct in his work. (Hint: It helped mark class divisions.) Society doesn’t work quite the same way anymore. But Stephens still believes in the porch, today as a spot that can take people beyond their TV-laptop-smartphone bubbles. “It’s a stage for how life unfolds between the public sphere and the private sphere,” he says. “On the other side of the door is your private world. Down the steps is your public world. The most interesting parts of life happen in the cracks between.”
Building (Stylized) Urban Community
Millennials, who are now starting to buy homes in larger numbers, may just be starting to fully appreciate porches. Shelley Glica’s daughter, Annika Glica-Henderson, 23, says she didn’t really understand the value of hers when her family moved into a house with one eight years ago. Then she found herself hanging out in front more and more, having coffee or a drink. And after her mom started organizing Porchfests and hosting speakers, she looked at porches differently. “You meet people and see local music and see local artists in action,” she says. “People are there taking pictures and enjoying the moment. It creates a sense of community in the downtown area.”
Ryan Sage, 26, is the guy who hosted the DJ-spun post-Porchfest party in Decatur, Georgia. Up to 300 people came to dance (“and they cleaned up after themselves, which amazed me,” he says. “I’m used to college parties.”) Sage and his fiancée were equally amazed at the Oakhurst neighborhood’s community vibe, and over time they’ve begun to see the way porches help make the area so friendly. “It’s not just a concrete slab with a door,” Sage says. “Outside of Porchfest there’s kids playing, people reading out there with a glass of wine. You see people out in the yard or sitting on the porch, and you can have a conversation with people you’ve never met before. As close as we are to Atlanta, it’s not something you’d expect right there.”
Scott Doyon, the former musician, has mixed feelings about the new uses of porches. Thinking about urban planning the way he does now, he went through a nostalgic phase, reading about how folks didn’t used to have to be coaxed out onto the porch—it was the most logical place to do chores without sweating. Then the Gen X-er got a little cynical—Boomers had tried to revive porches as part of the New Urbanism, but they didn’t get as much use because they weren’t as practical. People now may want them, but to him, that desire seems more symbolic. The porch might be shorthand for a neighborhood’s walkability and friendliness. But a young buyer might choose a house with a porch and rarely even use it.
Still, Doyon recognizes what he calls the more “affluent,” urbanized new ways of enjoying porches—having friends for hors d’oeuvres, Instagramming a cool concert—are what appeals these days. “Now I’m post-cynical,” he says. “I try to find ways to plug those old ways of living into the modern world. I still believe in the value of porches as a conduit to community-building—it just unfolds in a different way now. You don’t have to be shucking corn to get value out of your porch.” Come next fall in Decatur, you’ll find him organizing another Porchfest.