Saturday, February 6, 2010

Yeoman Farmers, Part One: Back-Porch Democracy

It is a central purpose of this blog to put forth a vision of urban conservatism -- to argue, in fact, that true conservatism is truly urban, and vice versa. I am well aware, of course, that this goes directly contrary to a standard American legend, that of the Yeoman Farmer: rooted in the land, tradition, community, and republican institutions. So I propose, time and energy allowing, to publish a series of posts pointing out some problems in that narrative. I'll tell you the overall theme at the start: romanticism is pernicious. But hopefully I can spell that out in better detail in what follows.

Today my theme is the pernicious romanticism of the front porch, a central theme of the (I think pernicious) New Urbanism movement (which is more new than urban) and the driving image of the popular traditionalist-conservative blog Front Porch Republic. I will freely admit that I don't read that blog -- I don't have time for their romanticism -- but I did read a thoughtful post recently by Patrick Deneen, doyen of Georgetown's lone (traditionalist) conservative institution, The Tocqueville Institute, and from what I can tell, a very decent, thoughtful, good guy -- if sometimes victim to a pernicious romanticism.

Deneen writes thoughtfully about the image of the Front Porch. He says it evidences a kind of mediation between the public and the private, an interface. Sitting on the front porch, you are at home, but available to neighbors. A young couple -- notice the reverse here -- is in private, but within earshot of parents, so that they can court without withdrawing from the family and parental authority.

All of this, says Deneen, amounts to a fine image for what really constitutes a republic. Res publica means "a public kind of thing," something shared. It means that society, and life, isn't merely about individuals trading off private goods, but about a shared world, where my private good, my home, is defined by participation in common realities.

Deneen's ideal

All very beautiful, and I wholeheartedly endorse the central points here. (More on that at the end of this post.) The only problem is the front porch itself. I think a little history will manifest the problem.

First of all, note that the front porch has no place in traditional architecture. It was a fleeting fad in the United States, first getting popular after the Civil War (c. 1865) and disappearing after the Second World War (c. 1950). When America's republican institutions were being founded, there were no front porches. Traditional Christian society in Europe never had front porches. I'll include some lovely images in this post to jog your memory, and you can check out this Web page, where I found most of them, to see more of the American architectural tradition. (Let me acknowledge: the untraditionalism of the front porch does not make it bad -- but it should make us think.)

The front porch's decline casts an interesting light on its rise. A key cause of the decline of the front porch, front-porch historians agree, was air conditioning. Climate control made it nicer to stay indoors than sit outside. A second cause was cars, which, with their noise and exhaust, drove people away from the front of their houses. A third reason, perhaps, was conspicuous consumerism, and the sense that the front porch looked too humble and old-fashioned -- ironically complimented by the cheapness of modern architecture, with its haste to cut unnecessary corners. A fourth was surely television, which made the indoors more entertaining. And a fifth, at least according to Deneen, was the transitory nature of post-automobile culture, where it no longer seemed worth the effort to get to know the neighbors.

Ironically, these reasons for the decline of the front porch also describe its beginnings.

Air conditioning drove people indoors -- but it was the heat that had driven them outdoors in the first place. It is worth noting that the front porch is originally a Southern institution -- historians think it may have been introduced by African slaves. Why had no one thought of this before? Well, everyone I've read agrees that a central part of the nineteenth-century evolution of the front porch was the advent of cheap building: previously, homes had been built of stone, which is naturally cool, but when they started being built more cheaply, other ways had to be found to beat the heat. (This is not central to my argument, but I note that the front-porch folks are usually pretty down on cheapness.)

In automobile culture, it is said, people had to flee to the back of the house when they wanted to be outside. But again, this highlights a significant irony. Historians agree that porches were initially put on the front of houses, not to be friendly to neighbors, but to hide from the back of the house. In the nineteenth century, that's where you kept the stinky horses and the outhouse. What's significant here is the motive for building front porches: purely utilitarian and private, not social. That doesn't change the social value of sitting out front, of course, but it should give one pause.

Television drew people indoors. What drew them out in the first place? Again, historians are unanimous: it was not a desire to socialize, but a desire to commune with nature, consistent with the nineteenth-century romanticism that created the Hudson Valley school of art and other forms of American naturalism. This point deserves further reflection, but before we move on, let us note in passing the connection to Deneen's claim that front porches declined when society got mobile: the time of the front porch was a particularly mobile part of American history, and it flourished most, not in the more stable towns of the East Coast, but in the West, where people were always on the move. One only needs to pick up a copy of Laura Ingalls Wilder, or peruse personal histories (I recently looked over the history of my Midwestern family) to see that these people couldn't sit still and were remarkably unpersuaded by the value of living close to family and old friends.

What drove the popularity of the front porch more than anything, say the historians, was a love of nature -- in fact, a way of thinking that explicitly opposed the dirt of man to the beauty of uncorrupt nature. Front porches were built, not to put people in contact with neighbors, but to help them glory in a world without neighbors. The front porch was a proclamation of glorious isolation, not republican community. Thus it is ironically consistent with the later-twentieth century's back porch, or patio: it was a way to be outside without seeing other people.

Indeed, a remarkable aspect of the front porch is that it goes hand and hand with a yard. In dense urban places where people don't have yards, front porches are almost impossible. And, from what I have seen of city living, where there are lots of neighbors around, it seems less pleasant to build a whole porch. Republic or no republic, people want a place to sit where there is some boundary between us and the world: whether an urban fence, a higher stoop, a balcony, or a suburban yard.

Having recently done some field research -- driving around old towns on the Hudson River where Victorian neighborhoods are still intact (I've done the same on the Shenandoah) -- it seems to me that late-Victorian suburban front porches were designed not to interface with the community but to help almost-city dwellers pretend they're out on the range. That's why these Victorian homes are built so far from the street, usually at a different elevation, and with as much yard as possible. The front porch as interface with the neighborhood is a lovely idea, but in fact, it was always used as a way to enjoy the distance of neighbors, cloaked, more or less perniciously, in the idea of nature's unsullied (that is, un-neighbor-ed) beauty.

I very much like Patrick Deneen's reasons for promoting the front porch, his ideas about life in community, an interface between public and private goods. But historically, I think the front porch better fits in with what the Greek political philosophers called "democracy" than with the idea of the res publica. Democracy means "mob rule," and the classic distinction is that a republic is about a common good, where individuals find their happiness in communion, whereas a democracy is about the majority snatching up private goods as fast as possible.

The front porch -- like the back porch -- is, historically, democratic, not republican. It's about individuals seeking pleasure through withdrawal from community. Perhaps it's no coincidence that the Victorian era, when the front porch was really popular, also saw the rise of progressivism, with its emphasis on destroying tradition and community in favor of a new kind of mass consumerism.

In place of the Front Porch, I submit the Sidewalk. In her magisterial The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs lays out truly republican institutions. The chapter-headings of her first section make the point:
The Uses of Sidewalks: Safety
The Uses of Sidewalks: Contact
The Uses of Sidewalks: Assimilating Children
The Uses of Neighborhood Parks
The Uses of City Neighborhoods

City sidewalks are about people watching out for each other, people being in contact with one another, children getting to know the neighbors, and seeing fathers at work.

Mrs. Jacobs explicitly limits this discussion to big cities, but I've studied old small towns across the country -- from places like Pippen, Wisconsin (on the Mississippi, the town closest to Laura Ingalls Wilders's Little House in the Big Woods), to Putnam, Connecticut (a nineteenth-century mill town), to Staunton, Virginia, and Harper's Ferry, West Virginia (in the Shenandoah), to Bath, Pennsylvania (a farm town near the Applachians), to Newburgh, New York (on the Hudson) -- and one thing they all have in common is "urbanism." No matter how small, old towns are built around a dense core, where people give up their yards in order to live close together. Although it's a bit of an anachronism, we could say that what all old towns, small or big, have in common is the centrality of the sidewalk.

It is the sidewalk, not the front porch, that performs the republican functions Deneen so desires. It is the sidewalk, and the stoop, no matter how small, on front of the houses crowded against that sidewalk, that makes people neighbors.

The problem with the front porch is that it only exists where people are not crowded together. No yard, no porch -- and the yard, more than anything, shows a people who value privacy and separation from the neighborhood over communion and public life. Indeed, the problem with the yard is that it creates a world where no one walks. An urban environment, no matter the size, is defined by density and the close interface of work, leisure, and home -- so that people can walk from one place to another, and meet one another on the sidewalk.

Yards -- the almost-inseparable companions of front porches -- define neighborhoods where housing is separated from work and leisure (no one puts a yard in front of their store, or law office, or theater) and people define home by distance from other people. Yards add up quickly, killing the density that makes a neighborhood walkable and public.

And so the front porch, like the back porch, its successor, is not a republican institution, but a democratic one. However high-minded, the romanticism that fails to see this practical reality is the romanticism that has torn apart our vibrant urban neighborhoods.