As modern life progresses and introduces new cultural forms, our tendency leans to retrieving artifacts from the past. This process of retrieval softens the shock of obsolescence; through names, shapes or designs, outdated cultural artifacts lend their comfort and familiarity to newer, less familiar ones. Automobiles provide a ready example; the Ford Mustang retrieved the heritage of the horse-drawn carriage.
As media critic Marshall McLuhan observed, society spends considerable time “in the rear view mirror,” which is to say, harkening back to the past to ease our passage into the future. The music from the 60s and 70s used widely in today’s commercial advertising appeals, no doubt, to Baby Boomers. So too it is in the field of home architecture, where the inclusion of a front porch is de rigueur, despite the rare sight of anyone sitting there.
In my daily walks about town (I barely drive my car, anymore), I’ve had occasion to wander through nearly every neighborhood, and only rarely have I seen a front porch in use. Most front porches have comfy-looking chairs or seating just right for relaxing and watching the world go by while sipping a glass of iced-tea, but they’re 95% vacant. Front porches are an idea we like, but no longer actually enjoy.
Without doubt, a front porch makes a home feel warmer and more neighborly, what the real estate business calls “curb appeal,” and the common presence of comfy furniture completes the pleasant illusion. In earlier, more relaxed times, front porches were a place where neighbors met and caught-up with each other’s lives. And a presence overlooking the street was not only inviting, but also added a sense of security and watchfulness to a neighborhood. In these hurried times, however, when street traffic is comprised almost entirely of cars and leisurely walking is in decline, the front porch has been abandoned. Sadly, in some places neighbors have been abandoned, too, replaced by Airbnb clients and vacation rental transients. Whether out of fear or preference, it seems we prefer privacy above all else.
It may be that front porches, like single family homes, are simply becoming obsolete. The housing market in Sonoma Valley is vastly overpriced, and what’s needed is multi-family developments and apartments more affordable to a wider spectrum of tenants. In some localities, laws are zoning new single family homes out of existence. But I suspect even multi-family apartment buildings will continue to incorporate front porches of some kind.
For walkers like myself, stopping to chat with folks sitting on their front porch is enjoyable. Although the conversations tend to be brief and often perfunctory, a “hello” here and a “how are you?” there, research reveals that it is the frequency of such personal interactions that is the leading indicator of longevity. The greater the number of friendly, albeit brief, contacts with others the greater the likelihood of living longer; it’s importance ranks higher than giving up smoking or even being married.
So it turns out the front porch is not simply about “curb appeal” or the sales price of a home. Although seemingly anachronistic, providing a context for positive interaction increases human lifespan and improves health. Sometimes, retrieval and appreciation of past forms is more than simply “looking in the rear view mirror”; sometimes it’s a matter of life and death.
See you around, neighbor.