In the days before the car, the front porch was the approved spot for courting couples, kept under the watchful eye of family. Hearts were broken and griefs consoled on front porches. Summer noontimes or rainy days found children playing under the protection of the porch roof. In the time before TVs, blogs and podcasts, local politics were debated and scandals gossiped about on the front porch.
Friends came for tea or picnics. On patriotic holidays the porch, bedecked in bunting, offered front-row seats for parades. Family parties marking school graduations and babies’ births became all-inclusive neighborhood celebrations. News from the outside world was delivered to the front porch in postcards and letters along with the daily paper. Anxious family members listened for soldiers and sailors returning from war; as they stepped onto the porch, the creak of the top step signaled they were home safe at last.
A Symbol of America
Drive along Main Street in this village at the northern tip of Keuka Lake and you’ll see well-kept porches of all shapes, sizes, and styles, from grandiose to humble, decorated with every type of furniture, flower and flag. In Penn Yan, as in many other Finger Lakes towns of a certain vintage, the front porch is still an emblem of welcome, of a time when people had leisure to sit a spell and talk, to be “dressed up” at Halloween and Christmas – an emblem of home itself and of ourselves. In other words, your porch is more than just a place to hang your flag.
Being from the Penn Yan area and having gabbed and napped on my share of its porches, I believe they still represent the spirit of neighborliness and appreciation for the outdoors that is now, at last, enjoying a resurgence. Don’t misunderstand me – the folks of Penn Yan are no backwoods anachronisms; they’ve got their share of PCs, cell phones and wireless Internet hotspots. But here, families and friends also find time to chat with one another and watch the world go by. The porch is a private place with a public view, or a public space where you can be private. When you think about it, the concept is quite magical.
The story of the rise, decline and resurgence of the American porch is the story of America itself. European homes generally do not feature what we think of as porches – broad, roofed expanses that extend our living space into the outdoors and create a pleasing transition from street to entryway. The development of the American porch is somewhat exceptional, a uniquely American architectural appendage that symbolizes our traditions of welcome, hospitality, and close-knit community. Some cultural experts even link the decline in popularity and use of the front porch with the decline of the health and well-being of the nuclear family since the 1950s.
Just the words “Let’s sit on the porch” conjure up cozy images of iced tea in tall glasses, your tired frame sinking into the depths of a well-padded wicker chair, a light breeze ruffling your hair and desultory talk drifting you through a summer afternoon. Hammocks swing, newspapers are abandoned over snoozing faces. The regular creak of rocking chairs and porch swings murmurs along with the gentle snores of companionable napping and the shush of passing cars. The household cat or dog joins in, sprawling in that sunny spot in the corner. The porch is a comforting place, the welcoming arms of home, setting the tone for what a visitor will find inside.
One recent summer day I decided to take a walk around my old hometown with my camera to document some of the porches I passed. The town was strangely quiet that warm Saturday morning, but I found a few folks working on do-it-yourself projects (on their porches, of course), gardening, or just relaxing with a magazine. Though I knew none of them personally, all were happy to have me photograph their porches, and even themselves, with no prior notice – trust that’s rare, and inspiring, in our post-9/11 world. The woman I caught sweeping her porch, the family celebrating their young folks’ morning swim across Keuka Lake with a hearty front-porch brunch and lots of laughter – their connection to the world outside their living rooms caught me, a stranger passing by, in their lives and stories, if only for a few moments. What else is community but that?
My walk that morning brought back sharp memories of when I was a kid almost a half-century ago, growing up on a farm outside Penn Yan. Summertime meant being outdoors all day and into the evening. As my grandmother had before us, my mother, sister and I sat on the porch to shell freshly picked peas into pots clenched between our knees. Scents of lilac, trellised roses and lily of the valley reached us from the bushes and flower beds my grandmother tended long ago. After a hard day of work in the fields, my father and uncle would stretch out along the porch steps, cold long-necked bottles of Genesee Cream Ale in hand, hay chaff adhering to the sweat on their sunburned necks, to talk over the day’s frustrations – the tractor that wouldn’t start, the weather that wouldn’t cooperate – and make decisions about tomorrow’s chores.
Evening on the porch was the most enchanted time. A hush descended, then slowly filled with the chirrups and croaks of night creatures. The stars were brighter then, it seems, sharply sparkling, joined by the mysterious, intermittent twinkling of lightning bugs. We kids would dash around the lawn, attempting to catch them in our cupped hands. One especially cherished night, my mother and I sat close together in the stillness of our porch and watched flashes of the aurora borealis light up the sky.
Our pleasures seem antiquated today, but we had fun with our imaginative, video-free play and slept soundly after. To me and many others, the porch is an emblem of that simpler, more “connected” life, a tangible reminder that seasonal outdoor living can link us to a greater, richer world of nature and imagination.
Every summer, we kids were granted the special treat of staying with our “town aunts” in Penn Yan. This was always a cause for excitement because being in town meant an easy walk to the old Elmwood Theater for movie matinees or to the public library, Joe Powers’ for comic books and Mad magazines, and Jen’s and Jimmy’s for milkshakes. Red Jacket Park on the lake was a refuge from midday heat. And not least, evenings were spent on the porch with our aunts and uncles and whatever visitors happened by. “Cocktails on the porch” were an evening tradition. As the adults chatted, we kids soaked up the murmur of their voices without always understanding the content but feeling the security of being connected to lives, and life, beyond the porch railings.
Since then I’ve lived in New England seaside towns, crowded suburbs, and big cities far from my hometown. I’ve been a porchless apartment dweller, and I’ve lived in urban townhouses where you wouldn’t sit on the front steps for fear of being mugged or mistaken for a panhandler, or worse. Looking back, Penn Yan and its abundant homes of welcoming porches are doubly special to me, and I notice and appreciate them whenever I visit. Now when I sit with my aunt and a neighbor or two on her front porch, not much has changed about us besides the inevitable aging and losses and gains. We’re likely to be treated to the sight of trotting horse-drawn carriages of local Mennonites who have bought up many of the outlying farms, reminding us that what comes around does indeed go around, and sometimes the important things don’t change.
Now keep the tradition alive and pass this story along to a friend over iced glasses of your beverage of choice on – where else? – your front porch.
photos and story by Darlene Bordwell