If you walk or bike or drive from Downtown Atlanta to Stone Mountain, your transect encompasses an architectural spectrum that tracks the twentieth century. Close to downtown is the King District and Cabbagetown, shotgun houses each with its own front porch, in easy speaking distance of passers-by on the sidewalk, or even front porch sitters across the street. People walk, and see each other walk, and get to know each other, and have encounters that are at just the right level of intimacy to foster engagement. The built environment creates the opportunity for community-building. A visitor unused to seeing foot traffic on the street would think there’s a lot of loitering going on.
Further on, the front porch reaches its pinnacle of development in 1920s and 30s Craftsman bungalows. Then a diminishment sets in, as porch sizes are reduced, and they migrate to the sides of houses, while the front element is reduced to a mere stoop, sometimes with awning, sometimes without. Eventually there is no porch, no stoop–the only thing facing the street is the automatically-controlled door to a 2, 3, or 4 car garage. Life happens on the back deck. There is no loitering, and walkers may be looked on with suspicion.
Kendra Juskus writes this month, on the Flourish weblog, about front porch culture and African history , in honor of Black History Month. It’s a fascinating piece, in which she explores why front porches act as bridges between public and private spaces, and how that builds community. My family’s own experience in urban Atlanta was to discover how in an older African American neighborhood, life still happens on the street side of the house. People tend to sit out front, to barbecue out front, and to live life in closer proximity to neighbors than in the housing districts that emphasize private spaces.
In related pieces this month, we explore how churches can begin to re-inhabit their neighborhoods and communities by allowing the “front porch mentality” to influence their architecture, landscaping, event planning. Churches have in many cases allowed their facilities to become semi-private spaces that are more like private clubs than public buildings, and how we might overcome that, through thoughtful changes to the built environment, in the way we welcome walkers, bicyclists, and in the way gardening accomplishes community-building.
Public spaces are endangered in modern American landscapes, and our politics and community-mindedness suffer as a result. When you have to buy a ticket or a coffee or a beer to encounter other people in neutral spaces, you lose some folks. How do we encourage spiritual loitering in a rat-race world?
Do you have ideas about how to retrofit our landscapes and lives to foster a front-porch culture? Write us (firstname.lastname@example.org). We’re happy to receive feedback and would love to share your ideas with others.