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With origins in the South, outdoor spaces are fostering a sense of ‘we are all in this together.’

The Kelly family on the porch of their home on Ransom Street in Chapel Hill. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)
The Kelly family on the porch of their home on Ransom Street in Chapel Hill. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Historians may look back at the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic as a time when people returned to their front porches, stoops, balconies and fire escapes for fresh air and a neighborly greeting.

One need look no further than the daily news or their own neighborhood. Folks are dancing and singing on porches, waving from old-fashioned verandas, stepping outside for a 7 p.m. salute or carrying their chairs to lawns and driveways.

Origins: Barbados to Charleston

“The first time that English people made a front porch part of residential architecture habitually was when they started settling the tropics, especially the island of Barbados in the Caribbean,” said Harry Watson, Carolina’s Atlanta Distinguished University Professor of Southern Culture. “It was one of the earliest English colonies and became a source of migration to South Carolina.”

As a native Southerner, Watson knows porches. The former director of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Center for the Study of American South introduced each issue of the center’s journal “Southern Cultures” with a column called Front Porch.

Watson said that the “single house” style also migrated in the 18th century to Charleston, where it remains on colorful display. Built for privacy and the constraints of small lots, single houses feature porches running lengthwise on each level and facing the back of the adjacent house. Charlestonians use the word “piazza” for these porches that work well where land and space are scarce.

Porches then became customary parts of houses throughout the South. Watson said that where people settled in wide-open spaces, they moved the porch from the side to a house’s street-facing front for good reason. “Houses, of course, heated up,” Watson said. “But even if it was a hot day, you could get a little relief outside on the porch. When the workday was over and people were ready to rest, sitting on the front porch or veranda was a great place to relax.

Sit, talk and watch the world

Whether humble or grand, porches in the South have been multifunctional, designed for socializing, relaxing and keeping tabs on the neighborhood. The same porch might serve as makeshift barbershop or bean-shelling spot one day and on the next day host relaxing conversation or card games after lunch. But always, it was a place to sit, talk and watch the world go by.

Dellie stringing beans with Nancy Morris, Sodom, Madison County, NC, 1975. (Copyright photograph by Rob Amberg, 2020.)
Dellie stringing beans with Nancy Morris, Sodom, Madison County, NC, 1975. (Copyright photograph by Rob Amberg, 2020.)

“Even as people began to settle in towns more and more, with houses close together and closer to the street, people still sat on their front porches,” Watson said. “There might be sidewalks and, as people walked by, they could talk to you from the street.”

That’s exactly what Watson did as a door-to-door salesman during his first year in college in Dothan, Alabama. “I went around town, and every afternoon by about 4 o’clock, people would be on the front porch shelling beans for dinner,” he recalled. “It was like clockwork.”

African American family on a front porch between 1925 and 1930. Library of Congress.
African American family on a front porch between 1925 and 1930. Library of Congress.

As air conditioning became more prevalent, people used front porches less and less. During the latter half of the 20th century, residential architecture began emphasizing decks and screened porches out back. The tradition of the front porch as an intermediate space between the street and a house’s interior, where people could talk, faded.

“We were not practicing that as much anymore,” Watson said. “The front porch is still there, and people often have chairs or a rocking chair or a swing, but that seems to be more for decoration than for active use.”

Then, social distancing changed things.

Neighboring in the new normal

“Neighboring” is how Bill Rohe, Boshamer Distinguished Professor in the city and regional planning department, describes renewed porch use.

Rohe, who has studied trends in how humans live in different settings, said that people use porches infrequently during normal times because of work, chores and spending time indoors engaging with others through social media. And, he said, research shows that socializing with immediate neighbors has declined over time.

“The pandemic has disrupted the routines of many people such that they have much more free time. Stay-at-home and social-distancing orders have reduced face-to-face social interaction,” Rohe said. “This has led to feelings of social isolation, particularly among those who are out of work or work from home.”

People have turned to porches, yards, driveways and clusters of socially distanced lawn chairs in cul-de-sacs. Watson, who runs or walks every afternoon, has seen the change. “I’m struck by the large number of people who are walking their dogs or with babies or with their families,” he said. “People keep their social distance, but they smile, they wave, they speak.

“It’s not the porch, but it’s the same idea,” Watson said. “There’s something about the current time that makes people want to reach out to others. It’s a rare luxury that you can do that instead of trying to escape something. It seems that people like the function of the porch, even if they aren’t actually using front porches for that purpose.”

‘An outdoor living room’

Rohe’s use of neighboring appeals to Danielle Purifoy, a Carolina postdoctoral fellow in the geography department who researches environmental and black geographies.

“Like an outdoor living room” is how Purifoy thinks of the porch. “It serves multiple functions and is also a place for intimate conversation.”

Purifoy said that the extension of the house provides space between what’s private and what’s public. “Intimacy happens on porches, conversations and those sorts of things. If you’re walking down the street, you’re not necessarily privy to the particulars of the conversation,” she said.

Porches can promote a friendly watchfulness of comings and goings. “I don’t think of it as a neighborhood watch. It’s a way for people to keep their communities safe without external policing,” she said. “It invites a friendly relationship because you see a neighbor on their porch, you’re on your porch and it’s hard to ignore each other.

“Our elders who are on porches all the time don’t have a surveillance-type watch,” Purifoy said. “They know who’s in the community, who lives there and who doesn’t. There’s a particular knowledge developed from having that kind of vantage point, and it can transform how a community operates.”

Neighborhoods can have well-established mutual aid that comes from pre-existing relationships. “It’s like, ‘Miss Geraldine is on her porch every day,’ and she may not be on Zoom or Facebook or whatever,” Purifoy said. “Maybe she needs something or, if she’s not out there, then maybe something is wrong, and we need to check on her.”

Among the COVID-19 cloud’s silver linings are the healthy holes poked through our self-reliance. “We live in a country that does not encourage a lot of mutual reliance. It’s very individual, and to think of an architecture that is able to do that is really important, particularly in a moment like now,” Purifoy said.

Porch portraits mark the moment

Some families and the media have documented this time of mutual reliance, sacrifice and togetherness through portraits taken on porches. It’s a throwback to days when family and friends posed on steps to mark special occasions – the kinds of photos in family albums and museum collections.

In this resurgence of neighboring, Rohe said, “front porches offer a great way to interact with each other in a comfortable and safe way, lessening the sense of social isolation and fostering a sense of ‘we are all in this together.’

Let’s hope that when the COVID clouds lifts, we’ll all remember the way porches bring us together.

By Scott Jared, The Well

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