Sunday, June 27, 2004

Front Porch Follies

People who live in Celebration might think that the title of this entry refers to the community intranet. Every now and then, certain topics like motorized scooters and school politics turn a relatively calm site into a hotbed of community debate.

But no, I am actually referring to the real, physical thing: that extension on the front of a house for the purpose of lounging around, relaxing, and maybe even socializing with your neighbors.

When I was a kid, the front porch was the place to be on lazy afternoons and balmy summer evenings. At our first house, in the city, there was no room for a chair, so our family would simply sit out on the steps. Our next door neighbors had nothing but a stoop, so they would wander over to share our more spacious facilities.

We eventually moved to my grandparents' house in the suburbs. Their porch was by no means palatial, but it was large compared to our previous home. There was enough room for two chairs, and they would often be posted out there like neighborhood sentries. Back in those pre-cable television days, you could often find more interesting "programming" going on outside than on your Radiation King floor model t.v. set.

My grandparents had access to a more interesting "channel" than most, since their house was right across the street from one tavern and across the alley from another. Of course, the best programming on that channel was usually confined to the weekends and didn't start until later in the evening.

When I eventually moved to an apartment, I was limited to a stoop like my long-ago neighbors. But fortunately I wasn't stuck in a large, soul-less apartment complex. I rented a studio apartment in a garage building, with another apartment above me. My landlord lived in the house in front and also rented out his upstairs. My next door neighbors were an elderly couple, and there was no fence between our yards. Between them and my landlord, the yard was always abloom with flowers, and I often brought my cats out on a leash and sat reading in the sunshine. Granted, it wasn't exactly a front porch, but it served the same purpose. Since all our backyards were close, and many were unfenced, it was still a good way to touch base with your neighbors.

That neighborhood was an old one, in a district with several historic homes, and it was still hanging on in something of a timewarp. We still had a corner store, although I think it was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, and neighbors still came out to sit together and share a beer on the porch or in the backyard, or to exchange the latest gossip over the back fence. When the UPS man came and I wasn't home, he'd simply leave the box with whoever he could find, even if they were strangers living down the block. The neighbor would look up my name in the phone book and call me to tell me they had my parcel. I met a couple of people at the far ends of the block that way.

We had all the typical small town characters: the neighborhood gossip who knew everything that was happening with everybody, the elderly people who were always on the watch, the rowdy gang of kids that runs through everyone's yards. I don't mean any of this in a negative way; people were involved and knew what everyone else was doing, which was great for a single woman living alone. I never felt afraid because I knew that the elderly couple next door kept an eye on my comings and goings. The neighborhood gossip who lived on the other side was at my door within five minutes of a storm/power failure, making sure that I had candles. We all looked out for each other, and our whole neighborhood was our "front porch."

But once I got married and moved to a condo in a newer neighborhood of a different suburb, everything changed. Our condo building had twelve units, and we lived literally on top of each other (three floors with four units each). But I never really got to know anyone, with the exception of the biker who lived below us. The "Harley Man" was a wonderful, involved neighbor who really cared about our building and our condo association. He was known as the "Condo Cop," keeping things in line. I really missed him when he finally moved away, as the lack of caring by others quickly became apparent.

Back in the early days, our condo complex would have a yearly block party. But within two or three years, it died out from lack of interest. Once our Harley neighbor was gone, people in our building started grinding out their cigarettes into the hall carpeting, partying into the wee hours with bass so lound that people could hear it three floors down, and leaving coolers, clutter, and even garbage on their balconies. There was absolutely no sense of pride and no consideration for other people.

When we first moved into that building, back when it was brand new construction, I was pleased that our unit featured a balcony. Since it wasn't wide enough for a swing, I immediately purchased a glider so I could sit outside as often as possible. Each year, for the first few years, my husband would dutifully haul it upstairs for the summer and downstairs to our garage for the winter. But although I enjoyed my "front porch," being three stories up made it difficult to connect with neighbors, and some people seemed to purposefully avoid contact.

There was one couple who lived on our floor who would go out of their way to avoid even making eye contact, let alone saying hello. At first I thought I was imagining things. One day they pulled into the parking lot at the same time as I did and sat in their car until I left mine and entered the building. Okay, could be coincidence. But it happened again and again, and I found out from a couple of other neighbors that they'd experienced the same thing.

Then, in the winter, a freak March blizzard snowed us all in. In a display of building-wide cooperation, every person from every unit went downstairs to dig out our garages together. Since they were all attached in a row, a cooperative effort made this much easier. But one unit's occupants were missing; it was the anti-social couple. They were definitely home, but they didn't come out and join us. When we were all done, all of the garage doors were dug out except theirs. Finally, half an hour after the rest of us had gone inside, they came out and shoveled theirs all by themselves.

Unfortunately, as the years passed and people moved out and in, more neighbors had the attitude of that unfriendly couple than of those of us who had worked together. Eventually, it got to the point where I didn't even know the first names of most of the people in our building, and I would have been hard pressed to match the last names on the lobby mailboxes with the appropriate faces.

When we decided to buy a place in Celebration, and I thought the only thing we'd be able to afford was a condo, the most disappointing thing for me was that I wouldn't have a real front porch. I planned to dress up my balcony with a glider, flowers, and a fountain, but I knew it just wouldn't be the same. Then, when we found our triplex, I was estatic because our unit featured a lovely porch that even had enough room for the porch swing that I'd coveted for years.

Apparently, our building was originally supposed to be a Colonial style, which only has stoops on the end units. But somewhere along the line, it was switched to a Craftsman, which has a porch on each unit. The model was also a Craftsman, and the exact unit that we were purchasing, so I was able to see exactly how much room I'd have available.
I was pleased to see that a swing would fit in nicely, with room left over for a couple of rockers and various decorative items that I could change with the seasons.

Once our home was done, the quest for porch furniture began. It was easy enough to find the rockers, as I like the ones at Cracker Barrel. The only question was whether to get white or natural wood-colored. My husband lobbyed for wood because he thought it would be the best match for our beige building. His opinion won out (you gotta let men win the small battles so you can focus on the war), and one Sunday morning I drove over to the local Cracker Barrel and watched as the manager kicked a couple of tourists out of a pair of rockers where they'd been waiting to be called in for breakfast, greased them up (the rockers, not the tourists), and somehow squeezed them into my vehicle.

The porch swing was more challenging to find. We made the rounds of all the local Lowes and Home Depots, but unfortunately we were a bit too close to the Christmas season, which pretty much starts in September. At most of the stores, the porch swings and other yard items had been stashed away to make room for plastic Santas and Christmas trees. We found a few shabby, flimsy models, but we were holding out for something nice looking and sturdy so we could get several years of service out of it.

Finally, our quest was rewarded. At one of the area Lowe's, we found a nice plantation style swing that would fit on the porch, and also, more importantly, in the car so we could get it there.

We had a ceiling fan installed at the same time as the swing was hung. Even though it was fall, and the mild weather had chased out the pervasive mugginess, we knew that we'd be glad to have the fan next summer. I found some cushions at Pier One, and my outdoor relaxation area was ready for occupation.

Porches are a fixture on the majority of homes in Celebration. They range anywhere from a modest porch, like mine, with just enough space for a swing and chairs, to glorious wrap-arounds that embrace entire houses. My favorite home model is the Victorian with an enormous wrap-around porch, but that was definitely out of our price range. I also love the houses that have an upper balcony, in addition to the porch below.

One thing that always amuses me is to see a porch swing hanging in an area that is obviously too small. When biking or walking, I've seen more than a few houses with swings hanging on such narrow porches that they'd break a window if you actually dared to swing on them. I'm not sure of their purpose, since it would be hard to sit there and remain still. The temptation for motion would be too great, at least until you smashed through the glass. Oh well, maybe they're for decorative purposes only, but those windows are in danger if a strong wind storm ever blows in.

Myself, I get as much use as possible out of my swing, with plenty of rocking motion. I do have to rein myself in a little, though. If I go too high, I eventually whack one of the porch posts. I've already branded them with a few chips in the paint, so I don't want to do any more destruction until I touch them up.

In one of the books I read on Celebration, the authors said that although the big porches and small front yards common to the town were designed to encourage people to socialize, this rarely happened in real life, at least outside of Lake Evalyn. Of course, if you've ever seen the yard sizes and proximity of many of the houses in LE, close interaction with your neighbors is unavoidable.

But happily, I haven't found their observation to be true, at least in my little corner of East Village. My neighbor in the mirror unit on the other end enjoys her porch even more than I enjoy mine. She was a lovely ceiling fan and comfy wicker furniture, along a fountain and all sorts of quaint little decorations. Often when I come out to relax on my swing, I see her across the lawn and we both move to one porch or the other and have a nice little chat. Our neighbors on the other side, who own a single family bungalow, have not one but TWO porch swings, which they brought with them from their former home. They are often outside, either alone or with company, and sometimes we wander over there to socialize. Our middle neighbor in the triplex has a nice porch, too, but with three little ones she doesn't have much time for hanging around outside.

Thanks to the miracle of laptop computers, cordless phones, and wireless internet, I can be out on the porch even when I need to work. Somehow working just doesn't feel as combersome when its done in the sunshine while swaying gently on a swing.

I don't know all of the neighbors on our cul de sac, but part of the reason is that we are still commuting back and forth to the midwest because of our jobs. But even in the limited time that we are at home in Celebration, I know my nearest neighbors better in nine months than I know the people in my condo building that I've shared with them for years. And once we're in Celebration permanently and never have to leave home again, I know that our social horizons will expand. I am very anxious to get involved in community groups, Neighborhood Watch, and the like.

Not far from us, on another street, there is a lively group that hosts an annual block party. It extends from their porches to the park area in the center of their group of homes, where neighborhood families all gather together. It's a wonderful chance to meet your neighbors, let the kids run and play together, have a cookout, and have some good old-fashioned neighborhood fun. This fall, my neighbors and I hope to host a similar gathering on the little park-like area in our cul de sac. We will have many new neighbors, as condos and townhomes are going up fast. It will be a fun way for us "old timers" who have been there all of a year to get together and to welcome the newcomers to our neighborhood.

Sometimes I worry that the same apathy that overtook our condo association will creep insidiously into Celebration. I was sad to hear that the Lights and Lemonade Committee disbanded because of poor participation. But there are still many well-attended community events, and I hope that there are enough like-minded people to keep them going strong.

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