I recently drove past my grandparent’s home on Arlington Street in the Heights. My grandfather built the house and as far as I know it is the only stucco edifice in the area. Grandpa did all of the plastering himself. The feature that he most liked was a porch that ran all the way across the front. Back when he and my grandmother lived there it was screened in so that they might spend time relaxing and enjoying their neighbors. They had a glider the size of a couch out there and always kept a big box fan going, especially on hot summer days. Whenever we visited we were more than likely to be on that porch that was always much cooler than the inside because they had no air conditioning back then.
My grandparents knew all of their neighbors. It wasn’t unusual at all for one or more of them to walk up to chat for a bit. It was great fun to watch the activity up and down the block. I especially enjoyed the smell of leaves burning in the ditches during the fall. Kids rode by on their bicycles and never failed to wave. Women walked with their babies in strollers and my grandparents would hop down the steps and across the yard to see how the little ones were doing. I felt as close to the people who lived there as I did to my friends on my own block. I suppose that I would never have met them had it not been for that front porch that Grandpa insisted on placing at the entrance to his home.
The screens that once kept insects from invading the sitting area are now gone. The porch still stands but I have never seen anyone out there. In fact the whole street is quiet and empty of human activity. The only signs of life come from the lights in the windows and the cars parked on the driveway. In the age of air conditioning it’s probably just too hot for people to sit outside visiting with their neighbors. It’s a lost art that I seldom see anymore.
Most of the older homes in Houston feature front porches. Sitting out front was at one time a way of life. Somewhere in time it became more popular to build patios out back to allow people more privacy. While I indeed enjoy my own little getaway in my backyard I have to admit to missing the joys of a big front porch. Once in a great while my neighbors will congregate on the sidewalk or in someone’s yard to exchange pleasantries but mostly the small town feel that was part of my grandparent’s world is gone. Most of the time I don’t even see children playing in their yards or riding their bicycles along the streets.
I suppose that we now operate from a certain level of fear. Parents worry that their children will be hurt or abducted if they are not safely protected. They prefer having the little ones inside or confined to the safety of the backyard with a fence to keep out trouble. My own house only has a small brick stoop not even large enough for a single chair. I might sit in my yard but I dare say that I would not see anybody for hours on end.
Back in my old neighborhood there were ladies who frequently congregated on lawn chairs in one of the front yards. I’d watch for them to get together and quickly grab my own seat so that I might join in with their daily block party. Our children frolicked within our sight as we shared news, recipes, and parenting tips. I so loved those times when I got to know the people who lived near me as well as if they were relatives. Over the years our acquaintance literally turned to love. As so often happens everything eventually changes and so did our lovely gatherings. People moved. The kids grew up. We met less and less. Eventually even I thought that it was time to leave for new pastures.
I sometimes believe that part of the divisiveness that we seem to be experiencing today comes from the isolation that so many of us feel in our air conditioned castles. Instead of friendly and inviting porches we seem to have built figurative moats designed to keep people at bay. I hear my neighbors talking and laughing in their backyards but I can’t see them. There is no way that I might walk over to ask them how they are doing because our fences block the view. I enjoy knowing that they are there and that they appear to be very nice people but I do miss the easy going feelings that were so much a part of the days of front porches.
There was an openness and innocence in the past that probably wouldn’t work anymore. As a child I slept with my bedroom windows wide open. Only the screens separated me from the outside. Our front door was rarely locked until night had fallen. We had little reason to believe that we were somehow unsafe. It was a different world and I suppose that today in our quest for security it is only natural that we hide behind walls and fences rather than being so open to the world. We put cameras at our front doors and peep through tiny holes when someone rings our doorbells. We worry and fret and close ourselves off.
I sometimes long for the days when we seemed to be a much friendlier society. We didn’t rush around so much and we entertained ourselves with conversations and games. We were trusting and open because there was little danger in being so. Experience has taught us to be wary and in the process we have lost the hometown spirit that once united us. I’m not sure that we will ever have that again but I think that having more front porches might be a step in the right direction, especially if we actually use them to get to know the people who live near us.
I have a nephew who moved his family to a neighborhood filled with young people who have taken the time to get to know each other. I love driving over to visit him because the whole place is literally bursting with activity just as all streets were back when I was a child. There are kids running up and down the sidewalks and adults sharing tools and helping one another with repairs and other tasks. It is like taking a step back in time to a world that hardly exists anymore. Each Christmas they light up entire blocks with arches that seem to shout a welcome to everyone. They take care of one another and celebrate together as though they are one great big happy family. That is how I think it should be all across the land. Perhaps we will learn how to be that way again if only we decide to try. It’s a nice possibility to imagine and something that I think many of us would truly enjoy.