“Front Porches”

Graham Nash (the Hollies and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young) has described Cass Elliot (the Mamas and Papas) as “the Gertrude Stein of Laurel Canyon”—that she had a “salon” similar to the one at 27 Rue de Fleurus in Paris in the 1920s. Cass brought her friends from the music and movie worlds together. She was a conversationalist and a storyteller who could hold forth on anything and everything, and according to Stephen Stills “you could always go over there. But call first.” (An Oral History of Laurel Canyon)

Growing up in North Dakota, I did what many other kids in North Dakota do during the summer – worked on a farm. It seemed everyone had connections to farming somehow. If I wasn’t golfing with my best friend Jerry, I was at the farm cultivating, picking rock or harvesting.

Late August was the time to bring in the crops, which was always wheat. Wheat was about all that grew on our land. While my dad operated the combine and harvested, I hauled the wheat to the grain elevator in the little town of Alamo (where the farm was at and my grandparents lived). Going to the elevator meant waiting in the lobby for the results of the load. The lobby was decorated with what seemed to be old bus seats repurposed as chairs, and a coffee pot a quarter full of day old coffee (at least). Only the most unsuspecting fool would touch that coffee pot. There was normally five or six farmers, all in OshKosh overalls – talking and waiting. Being the only teenager, I most often just sat quietly. Nobody much cared what teenagers had to say. However our wheat always had the highest protein levels in the area (giving me credibility); so if I did say something they at least they listened.

But what I do remember was the conversation wasn’t just small talk. These farmers, who were the civic leaders in the small town of Alamo, talked about problems they all faced; and most of all they talked about solutions. And by the time group dispersed, scattering to their respective fields to get the next load … they all seem to have some sort of a task to resolve to whatever problem Alamo was facing. Maybe it was helping out someone or just checking in on them. Regardless, it was normally something.

I imagine Alamo had a formal town council of some sort, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the real work happened there in the grain elevator while we sat on those repurposed bus seats waiting for our protein counts.

Minot, where I actually lived and went to school had Charlie’s restaurant and the Elks Lodge. These were Minot’s version of Alamo’s grain elevator. These were the places where the “business of the community” was done. These were the places where ideas were hatched and where the future of Minot was mapped out … often under the influence of a libation or two.

Latino front porch
Latino front porch, Los Angeles

The Front Porch

These informal meeting places described above, most often locally owned businesses, are what I call Front Porches, named after the front yard gathering spots so often seen in Latino communities that are used for neighborhood discussion and connection to the street. These Front Porches are where the Middle Ring flourishes and what the French political philosopher, Alex de Tocqueville, observed as the source of America’s “exceptionalism” of the 1800’s.

Unfortunately Front Porches, like the grain elevator in Alamo, the Elks Lodge in Minot and the Latino front yards – are fast becoming a relic of the past. And with this decay, our Middle Rings and the neighborhood continuity they bring are following suit.

“Few Americans today say they know their neighbors’ names, and far fewer report interacting with them on a daily basis. Pulling data from the General Social Survey, economist Joe Cortright wrote in a recent City Observatory report that only about 20 percent of Americans spent time regularly with the people living next to them. A third said they’ve never interacted with their neighbors. That’s a significant decline from four decades ago, when a third of Americans hung out with their neighbors at least twice a week, and only a quarter reported no interaction at all.” (Community Ties in an Era Isolation)

Just because this is a trend, it doesn’t mean we have to sit idly by and be part of this self-fulfilling prophecy. If we look hard enough, we can see that the Front Porch phenomenon is still alive and well.

“Unlike many Western cities, Chengdu does not strictly enforce regulations concerning late-night food and drink. At around 9 p.m., stalls selling barbecue, fried and boiled noodles, fried rice, and in some cases a full Chinese menu pop up on street corners, in front of alleys and underneath overpasses across the city. The stalls serve customers all night, until the sun rises and all that is left are streets and sidewalks strewn with chicken bones and crumpled greasy napkins. Short plastic tables are covered in beer bottles, and the clean-up crews share space with children heading to school. It’s not pretty, but for Chengdu’s 20 million residents, the after-after-party is an absolute necessity.” (Outdoor Midnight Snacking Breaks Down Barriers in a Chinese City)

But we don’t have to go to China or even oversees to find examples of Front Porches popping up out of otherwise darkness (literally and figuratively). In 2013 The Asian Art Initiative launched its The Pearl Street Project combining beautification, performance art and community-building. Artists have been invited to transform Pearl Street’s dingy, low-lit alleyways through projects and events, and collaborations with community stakeholders.

And every week at Detroit Soup, a group of dedicated volunteers help local artists fulfill their creative ambitions. People turn up, pay $5 at the door, and listen to three or four people pitch an idea to improve the local community. When the presentations are over, the soup is served and people mull over the ideas and vote on their favorite. The winner gets to take home all the money taken at the door and use it to fund their plan, with the promise they will come back three months later to report on their progress. Detroit Soup is a Front Porch that is a conduit for other Front Porches.

On a larger scale is 1 Million Cups. The Kaufman Foundation’s civic off ramp is a free weekly national program designed to educate, engage, and connect entrepreneurs. As of January 2016, they have caffeinated, connected and inspired budding entrepreneurs in 77 communities.

Entrepreneurialism doesn’t operate in a vacuum. A city is a function of its Front Porch small business community just like Minot was a function of Charlie’s and the Elks Lodge. And these weren’t the only Front Porches in Minot. They were all over town. They met and acted independently. Some weren’t even physically in Minot. During the summer every weekend, Lake Metigoshe, seventy miles north straddling the Canadian border, was a collective Front Porches made up of cabins scattered around the lake. Nobody thought of these vacation getaways as having any civic importance, but they did. They hatched school board candidacies and small business ventures. Most of all, they provided good food and drink, and a place where those were brought together who wouldn’t otherwise have been. 

Los Koritas Dillon
Los Koritas, Dillon

Yeni, Los Koritas and the Cure for Hate

Active Front Porches also breed familiarity … and familiarity is the prescription that cures bigotry, racism, homophobia and hate.

“As Yeni Mora, a 36-year-old from the central coast Mexican state of Nayarit poured coffee, her customers opined about an issue that’s buzzed through talk shows, diners, social media and Montana’s legislative halls, where lawmakers passed several laws targeting illegal immigration. Some of the diners at Los Koritas said “lazy Americans” bear some blame for illegal immigration; others said ranchers and farmers had to hire immigrants without papers because of burdensome work visa programs.

Mora saved enough to take over the one Mexican restaurant in Dillon about three years ago and renamed it Los Koritas, her variation on a name for indigenous people from Nayarit. When the Longhorn Saloon closed two years ago, some customers approached Mora with a request. They no longer had a place to meet in the mornings, they told her. Could she open for breakfast? Mora said of course.

Then one day this fall, as Mora was preparing their orders, George Warner and other diners were holding forth on rule-breakers and the dangers of illegal immigration. They did not know Mora was one of those rule-breakers. Four cups of coffee in, they found out when a reporter, with Mora’s blessing, mentioned that she had entered the country illegally when she crossed into Nogales, Ariz., a decade ago.

At first the reaction was disbelief. Yeni? Really?” (Talk about illegal immigration spills a revelation )

The story of Yeni Mora and Dillon, Montana is all too common. It’s easy to stereotype and label from a distance. But when that label becomes a real person, stereotypes often dissolve and all but the most hardened haters soften. Here was Yeni, the illegal … who was also the one who provided their community the Front Porch it depended on. But most of all Yeni was their friend. Familiarity breeds acceptance and often friendship. And Front Porches are what make it all happen.

Knowing Who Your Community Isn’t

A community’s Front Porches give it its personality; and a big part of this personality are its businesses. How a community wishes to be seen, felt and portrayed is dependent a large part on how it supports its business ecosystem.

To recognize the role of the Front Porch in a community’s development isn’t enough though. It’s equally important to recognize what Front Porches are influencing this development. While I’m not saying a community should regulate where people meet, a lack of attention to this might result in consequences that you may not want. Small businesses and neighborhood gathering spots mirror the “organics” of your community. This is what you want to encourage. On the contrary, if your Front Porches become nothing other than extensions of big box stores and Wall Street homogenization, your community will be stripped of its individuality, and of its personality. It will become nothing other than a clone … just another exit ramp on the highway of sameness.

“All of this, of course, is part of the Wal-Mart plan: They move in, push other stores out of business while simultaneously expanding their services—at some supercenters you can get new tires, new glasses, and a teeth cleaning—until suddenly you find yourself buying everything at Wal-Mart because there’s nowhere else to buy it.

So as Wal-Mart encroaches on more parts of life, more of people’s lives happen at Wal-Mart. The chain is the third biggest vision care provider in the country, the fourth biggest pharmacy, and the biggest grocery store. People sell drugs in Wal-Mart and make drugs in Wal-Mart. In one Florida town, nearly half of all crime takes place at Wal-Mart. Some people live in Wal-Mart parking lots; others try to live in the stores themselves. Teens don’t hang out at malls anymore; they hang out at Wal-Mart.” (How Wal-Mart Became the Town Square in Rural America)

This ominous scenario is becoming the default in many communities (especially in rural areas). In order to not let this happen to your community – you have to be proactive. Humans are social creatures and they will gather somewhere. Where they do and what happens there can be positive for your community … or it might not.

Front Porches and Societal Evolution

The goal of Community 3.0 is to take the principles of resource maximization and incorporate them with the naturalism of the Rhizome organization articulated by Deleuze and Guattari I described in my last piece Growing an Evolved Society.” This result is a platform for community self-governance and sustainability built around Front Porches.

Rather than myopically obsess on economic growth as most all civic governments do, Community 3.0 Front Porches focus on destroying the“silos” that retard our evolution ultimately improving the overall well-being of our community including its physical, cerebral (avenues to self-actualization) and spiritual health.

The priority of these Front Porches is to create environments that nurture hope by empowering avenues for us to engage with our world and express our creativity through a Solutionist mindset – letting the inherent benevolence inside us bloom. By making “helping others” our societal norm and expectations … we will supplant that of the hopeless climb up the ladder of our current economic caste system.

Where are the Front Porches in your community? Are there any? If so … what happens there?

Imagine what could.

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If you haven’t, I invite you to start by delving into my ideas in the series, On the Road to Your Community’s Perfect World,” This is how I believe we can create better, more inclusive, unique communities that can become the solution to our society’s pressing issues. Consider each week’s post a Mile Marker (MM), a cerebral off-ramp from the highway of your daily routine, taking a you little further down this road to a better version of society.

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You can follow me on Twitter at @clayforsberg and on Google+.

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4 thoughts on ““Front Porches”

  1. Very Inspiring Clay.
    I started a “salon” a few years ago, then got distracted. You’ve reignited my purpose.

  2. Seems like you’re drawing a lot from Robert Putnam’s book “Bowling Alone” which I support. I’ve always thought of organized, non-school, site based tutor/mentor programs, located in high poverty neighborhoods, as a sort of “front porch” or gathering place. The one’s I led were always short of funds to do everything needed, but we managed to operate for 18 years. I maintain a list of over 200 youth serving programs in Chicago, and share this on a web library that’s available to any. I also point to similar programs in other cities. And I host quite a bit of other information in the web library. This map shows the four sections. http://tinyurl.com/TMI-library

    The ideas you share would represent ‘additions’ to my library, or to libraries of others. The challenge is finding ways to build “learning” cultures in more places so that there are people continuously dipping into these libraries, and reading blog articles like yours, then borrowing ideas that they think will work for them.

    Getting resource providers to do the same, or into the same conversation, is essential. Otherwise we have too many good ideas, but too few resources and tools to apply them.

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