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Saturday, July 20, 2013

The American Front Porch: How It Came About. by Rose Walker





(The following was meant to be published on the Hoboken Patch 7/18/2013, but through unforeseen circumstances was not allowed)

     The porch for many years was considered a distinctly American structure, starting in the 1840's, but it's beginnings are not American. Ancient Greece had the portico, and Rome, the veranda, and they surrounded a private courtyard. Public buildings in the middle ages might have surrounded a piazza, or public square, but private homes had no such area. In America, the first appearance of a porch was among the shotgun houses of the South, originally built as slave quarters. The porch had its roots in the traditional housing of the Yoruba people of Nigeria, where a common courtyard of many homes was lined by a constructed overhang supported by wooden columns from the roof of each home. It was a place to work, rest, and socialize outside of the private home. It was the part of the home that was open to non-family members. When slaves arrived in America in the 1600's, they were given the task of building their own homes. With social cohesion discouraged by slave owners, they built the same kind of houses, only separated. Still, the porch served as a liaison between the private house and the public areas.
     The heat of the long summers in the south encouraged whites to build homes with porches, also. As with all things southern, it had its own particular informal laws of sociability. Only the inhospitable refused to wave at all passers-by. By the 1840's, on the east coast, industrialization had created a new middle class, who had the wealth to build larger homes, and had time at the end of the day to visit. A cultural movement, helped by the Hudson River School of Artists, promoted the American landscape as a divine manifestation. Victorian homes with their gingerbread ornamentation idealized the natural bridge between the garden and the house. It was a domestic architecture that differentiated America from England, a desired effect. Brownstones built from the Passaic formations deposited 200 million years ago held the answer to NYC and the surrounding areas need for community, where a city's own rules of etiquette applied in the 1890's through the 1930's. Truncated porches or stoops holding man-made seats served as outdoor living rooms when a cool breeze was available in the summertime. Similar stone houses filled neighborhoods in cities throughout the land. It took nearly 100 years, but by the 1930's the porch began to fall out of style. By the 1950's and the rise of the automobile, they all but disappeared. In the cities, streets widened to accommodate automobiles and their parking slots, and the congestion made porches considerably less desirable. Television brought the world to the family inside the home. Ranch style homes with attached garages meant the inhabitants might not ever have to leave the comforts of air-conditioned areas in the late 1970's. At the same time, high-rise apartments with protected parking underground served the same purpose in the city. Not surprisingly, a culture of fear and mistrust on the news made to sensationalize viewers and increase profits lead previously friendly neighbors to trust each other a little less. The porch, the symbol of the open American way of life and love of the natural, fell into either disregard or disuse in all but the smallest towns and older neighborhoods. The modern American way of life had no need for it.

     In the 1980's among Urban planners a strange thing began happening in the suburbs. Rather than row upon row of cracker-box houses, an attempt began to plan community within even suburban areas. Requiring sidewalks and allowing mixed zoning have allowed neighborhoods to spring up, where a casual sense of community ties has literally been planned for. Shops and sidewalks, community gathering spots and shaded porches allow neighbors to once again know and greet neighbors. Gentrified neighborhoods of the past regain their liveliness, and those proud communities share their bond in outdoor living.

     Carroll Jones III, American artist, has a feeling of the spirit of the times depicted by the front porch which he shows in this work, Home. Many artists would have filled in with their own vision of humanity the persons belonging in this place, this spot between private and public lives. In an uncanny ability to shake our memories loose, he has filled in all but our loved ones. We do that ourselves. Dad smoking his cigar, and mama rocking the grand-babies...we see it in an ethereal sense, even if we don't visualize them. We as humans, have responsibilities to ourselves, our families, and our community. Nothing signifies this more than the front porch, which encompasses all our worlds, and holds the same ancestral sense of belonging. When we see it, we know we aren't far from home.
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Notes:
"THE AMERICAN FRONT PORCH Its Origins and Role in American Culture." Http://www.mediabistro.com. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.mediabistro.com/portfolios/samples_files/44376_ZyIAgfMjxIHh2KlpIoj4SyTMA.pdf>.
"Brownstone." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 07 July 2013. Web. 18 July 2013. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brownstone>.
Rueb, Emily S. "Savoring the Illicit Thrill of a Glass of Something, Outside." NY Times. 18 Aug. 2012. Web. 18 July 2013. <http://www.nytimes.com/>.