... the decline of an American institution.
A lot of social change has been documented and discussed, in recent years,but one important change has been quite neglected -- the decline of the front porch. Not your enclosed or partially closed porch, but the good old days' open, stair-fronted veranda, something by its own nature friendly and casual, a gentle boon to getting acquainted.
How many houses have front porches nowadays? Sure, older sections of cities and towns have them, but drive through areas developed in the last 30 years or so -- not one geniune porch in sight! Ranch houses and split-levels favor rear patios, with only an abrupt stoop at the front door, and if some new homes attempt a compromise, it's barely porch enough to balance one chair on. Not a very friendly abutment.
When I was a child back in old Buffalo, every house had a porch, and people stopped casually by to visit, or chatted sidewalk to porch railing. My father, walking home from the corner bus stop, tipped his hat ten times to smiling ladies on their verandas, and exchanged a few words with his favorites: "Is it hot enough for you, Mr. Taylor?" on a 99-degree scorcher; "Not quite," he'd reply, or "Almost, Mrs. Erb, and a good day for sitting on your veranda. You're not likely to catch a cold." A laugh from Mrs. Erb and barking from Honey and Happy, her two big chow chows, would trail him as he greeted the next waiting neighbor.
As a little girl, I visited friendly women elders on their porches, rarely seeing,the inside of their dark houses. If there had been no porches, I'd never have, gotten to know them, for ringing bells to visit was something that came later.
All summer long we kids played on the front veranda -- guessing games of color and movie-star initials, cutting out paper dolls, playing house, holding checkers tournaments, balancing on the railing as we chatted. It was on the porch my brother Buster sat with his gang seeing who could spit farthest on a forward dip of the broad wicker rocker (my brother was champ -- he once hit the curb on the opposite side of the street).
And it was on the porch that my big pretty sister Lois sat with her bare feet on the railing, waving to big Bert across the street on his porch -- not with her hand but by waving her toes.
In a darkened corner of the front porch one fall morning I was kised for the first time, by Dickie Meloon, when I was 5. My chums and I sat there watching for grammar school boys we had a crush on, and later when I'd be shelling peas there the poetic boy who lived two doors away would run over and help, reciting Shakespeare or the latest episode of Vic and Sade.
Where do kids go to smooch, in the absence of a front porch? My sister and I read through golden summers on the veranda, "Pride and Prejudice" and the "Jalna" books and "Gone With the Wind" (she wouldn't let me see it -- too shocking), and we wrote our letters and drew pictures. And when it rained we let down the green and white awnings over the gray-shingled porch, and breathed in the richened rain air, and watched brown water cover the red bricks till a dark lake stretched all across the way to the lower houses across the street.
My mother would sit with us there in the evenings reading the paper, and pretend not to notice when my father, who after sitting in his office all day enjoyed the exercise of washing dishes, would come out in his long apron. The neighbors were agog: the man of the house doing the nightly chore while the women relaxed. We'd giggle and mother would shake her head and continue reading.
Mrs. Couch, who lived next door and was the street's gossip supreme, could never have survived without her cozy carpeted veranda overlooking the avenue. Extremely bow-legged, she was eventually limited to her porch instead of walking her beat, but was still able to be top reporter -- later father called her the editor-in-chief -- of neighborhood news through total use of her porch and phone. Sometimes Mama would duck back inside in time, butusually Mrs. Couch caught her and she'd be pumped for gossip or have gossip thrust upon her.
To Mrs. Couch, with her darting bird eyes and bobbed white hair, her porch was her life's blood. Summer nights on a veranda, barring bad weather and insects, are mysterious and beautiful. Shabby, close-crowded houses are darkened kindly, orange windows glow warm and bright with life inside, and the gold ball of thestreetlight turns still, dark leaves spring-green and lustrous. Voices from other porches or strollers down the street are lowered and charged with intrigue. The soprano laughter of the street's married coquette used to ripple like silverbells across the dark, and sometimes we'd call to Pal, the policeman's dog, to stop barking, his folks would be home soon.
The whole panorama of life could be watched from our front porch -- babies born and growing, funeral wreaths placed on doors, and all the fascinating things in between. Where do the elderly and the friendly sit now to view the world, and how do they exchange a few words with neighbors without a veranda? If they can't get out of the house, thay have only a window, and you don't strike up a casual little conversation through the window.
Architects and planners ought to take a new look at the old front porch. But then, maybe it belonged to friendlier days.