I recently discovered a website called The Front Porch Republic. The idea is to encourage local culture and community, believing too much attention is given to far off national political structures and divisions. I have no interest in getting into any political discussions. But the website shares something in common with my series on Youngstown. It is all about loving the places where we live or have lived. And I really like the name. The Youngstown I grew up in was a front porch city.
Maybe I’m thinking about it because this was the time of the year we pulled out the front porch furniture. At my house we hung awnings to keep the porch shady in the afternoon. We didn’t grow up with central air conditioning. Cooling was either window fans or air conditioners in windows that mainly cooled the room they were in. The front porch was the place we went to cool off, catching whatever breeze there was, with a cool drink at our side. We’d sit out and talk late into the evening. Sometimes, especially if you had a screened in porch, you slept out there on the hottest nights.
The other thing we did on the porch was visit with neighbors. Porches were our social network. If we weren’t on our porch, we were walking a dog or going for ice cream, and often stopping to talk with other neighbors. We’d catch up on vacations, expected babies, sick relatives, and engagements. We’d talk about projects we were working on around our homes, or something we needed to repair on the car. And yes, there was the passing of neighborhood gossip. Guys would talk about strike rumors, the Indians and the Pirates and the team we all loved to hate–the Yankees.
I knew every neighbor on our street, and as I grew up I began to learn all the ways people could be different, and that different was just different. Old people and younger families. Catholic and Protestant. People fussy about their yards and others more laid back. I knew the families of friends on other streets and all the people on my paper route, many who waited on their porches for their paper in the summer.
In our own front porch republic, we had parents, and then there were the other adults in the neighborhood. You were expected to respect them and their property the same ways you respected your own family. And other parents could yell at us when we got out of line.
Most of the time people were pretty self-sufficient. We all kept up our own places but we were around to lend a hand when an extra one was needed. We cut our grass, and in the winter shoveled our walks. But in the front porch republic, we learned when someone was sick or had a family member in the hospital and pitched in to help with some yard work, or a meal.
The pandemic has been a time of rediscovering neighbors. When you couldn’t do very much else, you went for walks. And you met people on your street you hadn’t met before. We discovered again the joys of small talk and care for one another, wishing each other’s health. We found out life may be better off social media and not listening to 24/7 news streams, and how much we longed for real human connection, even at a social distance.
I hope that is something we can keep. I’m troubled by the rising gun violence in many of our cities. The risk of random gunfire puts the front porch republic at risk. The restoring of the fabric of neighborhood, where the adults on the front porch keep watch not only on their own kids but others could be part of turning the tide. The neighborhoods we live in are still more important to the health of our cities than any virtual community we may find online. That’s something we grew up with in Youngstown. We knew about front porch republics before they ever became a website. We had them in every neighborhood.
To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!