Whatever Happened to Front Porches?

Not long ago, I returned to my hometown of Park Ridge, Illinois. I wanted to see if the essence of the town in which I grew up was still there, or if it had been overrun by sterile highways, gigantic malls, and a tsunami of franchised restaurants.

I was pleased to find that I still knew my way around. Of course there was change. But for the most part, it was the town of my childhood, only bigger. And a lot more diverse.

Front Porch PhotoGrowing up here during World War II, this clean, mature suburb just northwest of Chicago was chalk white. The only African-Americans I ever saw were on exotic forays to Chicago’s Loop.

In Park Ridge, we were all WASPs, an acronym you seldom hear anymore. Cookie-cut and Christian, we were as close to a classless society as you’ll ever find.

Suddenly Trivia: Today’s New Urbanism philosophy calls for a) front porches, b) picket fences, c) alleys providing rear access to garages, d) all of these

Today the all-white high school I attended (as did Hillary Rodham Clinton and Harrison Ford) displays the flags of 73 nations; two-thirds of the students live in a household where English is the second language.

Nostalgic Front Porch Makes a Comeback

But as I hung around and drove around, the shift that struck my heart most was the scarcity of front porches.

Fireflies in a Bottle

When I was a kid, whole families practically lived on their porches in summer. Most every home had one. Usually, there was a rocking chair or two, a porch swing suspended by chains from the ceiling, and an old sofa or maybe a couple of those uncomfortable Adirondack chairs.

Every evening you’d find my extended family – grandparents, kids, uncles and parents – all out there recalling their day, catching up on the news, greeting and often sharing the evening’s desert of rhubarb pie with passing neighbors.

It was an adult time.

We kids were expected to participate, to learn of grown-up topics and behaviors. Then, when dark fell and the evening’s popular radio programs beckoned within, we were given freedom to hunt and bottle fireflies or bike to the park for a game of catch.

Maybe the advent of air conditioning changed all that. Or fear of crime. Whatever, the front porches are gone now. Most every one of them. Today, those old frame homes look sterile, each a graceless cold block of a dwelling, barren without the warm and welcoming face of a screened-in front porch.

I wonder if the folks who live there now have any inkling of what they’re missing. Probably not. Just as they don’t miss hand-wringer washing machines and push lawn mowers and milkmen and the knife sharpener’s hand-drawn musical carts.

As I sat there looking at this row of naked homes, all much smaller than I remembered, I found myself missing old man Nielson’s corner drug store down the street, with its marble soda fountain, nickel ice cream cones – every sixth one was free! – and delicious cherry Cokes. I wonder when the last family drugstore in America vanished. This one was gone by 1960.

In so many ways, Park Ridge and the rest of us are far better off now than back when I was a kid. Today we’re a much richer, freer, more vital society.

But as we grew prosperous, we lost trust in one another. As we found diversity, we lost our sense of community. And as we gained freedom to do as we wished, we lost some of the very foundation upon which that freedom was founded: love of one another.

Suddenly Trivia Answer: d) all of these. An example of this thought is Seaside FL where “The Truman Show” was filmed.



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