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David Bouchier: Summer on the porch

Geoffrey Gallagher

A house in our neighborhood recently had a major makeover, which included an entire new wraparound porch. It was handsomely done, and the porch was soon furnished with comfortable looking chairs and a porch swing, wreaths, decorative lanterns and hanging pots of flowers. When the warmer weather came, I was expecting to see the owners of the house out there, relaxing and enjoying their expensive investment. But nobody appeared, and the beautiful porch has remained empty like a stage set waiting for the actors to appear.

I should have known better. Many of the older houses around here have porches, and I never, ever see anyone sitting on them. They symbolize nostalgia for an earlier more sociable age when we like to imagine that life was more like an old Hollywood movie. In those far-off celluloid days, families would sit out on the front porch, taking it easy, greeting everyone who passed and exchanging gossip. Now, most of our neighbors zip past at 40 miles an hour, greeting nobody and intent on getting where they are going as soon as possible. If there is any gossip, they must be exchanging it on Twitter.

The only true porch culture I have ever experienced was at Chautauqua, the famous Potemkin village and cultural center way up near the Canadian border, which opens only in the summer months for a festival of music, art and writing. The architecture is mainly Victorian, and almost every house has a porch. Not only that, but people really do sit on their porches, often daintily drinking gin and tonic from teacups for the sake of appearances. It is a whole porch lifestyle, and the convention seems to be that anyone in the street can start a conversation with anyone on a porch, and vice versa. The conversations can be serious. Two elderly ladies once strolled by our porch, discussing Diderot and Voltaire. This almost never happens on Long Island.

A famous attempt to create a modern porch-oriented culture was the Disney Corporation’s 1996 development in Florida, a planned town of 10,000 called Celebration. Porches and porch swings were written into the sales description, along with the slogan: “A place where neighbors greet neighbors.” You can see the pictures on the web. This utopia, like all utopias, was less than perfect. Not only did nobody sit on the front-facing porches but there were roof leaks, there were infestations of mice (surely to be expected in a Disney enterprise), and very soon there was crime.

We have a porch on our house, facing the street. One sunny day, for reasons I can no longer remember, I decided to sit out there for a while. It was embarrassing. The few people who passed by on foot were either jogging or being pulled along by dogs. If they noticed me at all it was with looks of incredulity, amusement or even hostility, as if I was spying on them, which I suppose was. I soon went inside.

We are paranoid about privacy in the suburbs. It comes from living in our little separate kingdoms rather than being piled up and crowded together like New Yorkers. But I suspect that the true explanation for our empty porches is much simpler. Nobody wants to hang out on the porch because there is no television on the porch.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.