Stoops to conquer

How front-porch sitting can save us from ourselves

Cats make excellent weapons in the struggle for neighborhood safety.

Cats make excellent weapons in the struggle for neighborhood safety.

An astounding variety of problems afflict our communities, from the environmental and criminal, to family stress, to the consequences of pork-barrel politics and pandering by special interests. Around the most troubling problem, however, local officials have carefully cultivated a disturbing conspiracy of silence. I speak, of course, about the declining usage of the front porch.

Now, this problem has been with us for decades, with nary a comment from the local press corps, so I will describe the rigorously rational thought process whereby I discerned it.

I was sitting on my parents’ front porch in Land Park, a small but solid brick rise with room for a rocking chair. Dusk was turning to night, and a neighbor down the street was calling her kids home. “Cars could come barreling around the corner,” she observed. “Who knows what a stranger’s going to do?” Subtext: She was afraid for her children’s lives.

That night, I had a historical dream. I saw a Sacramento-like neighborhood with men and women relaxing in the evening air, children running delightedly through the streets playing kick the can and whiffle ball. Glasses full of lemonade and bottles of home-brewed beer rested on milk crates. As neighbors promenaded up and down the street, they stopped for informal colloquies about the local elections, the price of milk and, inevitably, the weather.

A stranger was lurking in a shadow by a hedge. The neighbors called on him to identify himself. He was a well-meaning man, an inventor in fact, who was merely examining a colony of ants. He ended up teaching the children a jig.

I woke up. I went out to my porch and sat there, pondering the meaning of my dream and the purpose of the front porch as garage doors opened and my neighbors drove to work. I saw that the benefits from front-porch usage were outlandishly numerous.

Front-porch sitting encourages conversation among neighbors, offering an excellent informal setting to discuss common problems, such as water quality, under-funded schools and the efforts of a state’s governor to push today’s economic problems onto future generations.

Front porches are great places to develop common, grassroots solutions to local issues. On the front porch, we strengthen our ethic of personal responsibility, thanks to the experience of common fellowship with our community. When we know the people around us, we’re more likely to come to their side in times of need.

Front-porch sitting discourages criminal activity. Drivers slow, realizing they’ll be recognized and shamed if they speed. Children run more freely.

Childhoods improve in communities with a healthy front-porch culture. Kids can play later into the night, enlarging their brains instead of giving themselves over to the manipulative sponsors of their favorite TV shows.

And finally, sitting on the front porch connects us to nature. As we watch the moon’s phases and sky’s moods, we can’t help but ponder our total dependence on the natural world.

Yes, the lack of discussion about the benefits of front porches can only be called a conspiracy. Nothing in the archives of the Bee. Not a single speech devoted to the benefits of the front porch by a local official in the last year.

And it’s getting worse. I investigated.

“What we’re finding, the marketplace prefers designs that emphasize living in the rear of the house, in the backyard spaces,” said Scott Schriber, manager of architecture at JTS Communities, a home builder headquartered in Sacramento. “If you look at the more popular plans, they’re going to have the kitchen and great room in the back of the house. I think we’ve had a culture shift to private living.”

With this alarming but not unsurprising discovery, I realized the logic behind the culture shift to private living is the logic of fear. Democracy is built on communities, communities depend on fellowship, and fellowship is the staple of the front porch! The great irony is that if we retreat from the problems of the world, the problems get worse. It’s by common engagement that they improve—exactly the action that front-porch sitting supports.

I stood up and stretched. I watched a leaf fall from a tree. A child rode by on her bicycle and waved. A car came around the corner, too fast I thought—the child’s father, home from work; obviously, it had been a stressful day.

A revolutionary public action came to mind: Operation Sacramento Porch Sit. I decided I would invite my neighbors—all of you—to take your chairs onto your porch. Do it tonight. Chit-chat with passersby. Watch the sky turn shades and contemplate how they reflect the ambiguities of your soul. Let the kids play until after dark. Realize that the power to save the world from those who are divided from their porch, and therefore from themselves, belongs to you.