Porch Protection | CNU

As a young black man growing up in the urban oasis of Memphis and rural Bells, Tennessee, I encountered time and again an architectural element of both places: the porch. My maternal grandmother worked on the front porch; She enjoyed observing the street (she didn’t know who Jane Jacobs was), the conversations, and the activity. Most important, however, was the sense of security she enjoyed that came with having a place on her property where she could relax and share at the same time. My paternal grandmother worked on the back porch; She enjoyed watching the children in the five adjoining backyards play sports and board games, seeing families hosting cookouts, and comparing her shrubs, trees and plants to others around her to see what she could add to her beautiful collection of gardens and green spaces. As black women who grew up in predominantly black neighborhoods, the porch was a staple of the urban design of their regular routine, providing them and those around them with a sense of safety and connection. It is from this culturally and historically sacred vein that I write today to encourage us, as neo-urbanists, to protect the balcony.

The New Urbanism, among other things, places great priority on making places to create natural human activity. The street place design is implemented more intimately by the urban design which is the balcony. How a physical space or place is shaped and used can depend on the cultural context. Although it may masquerade as a European invention, the balcony’s roots go back to West and Central Africa, hundreds of years before European intervention. Dr. Joseph Holloway, in his article “African American Architecture: A Hidden Heritage,” specifies that the enclosed porch design style came from the Yoruba tribe and was brought to the Americas via Haiti. Although there is historical evidence of balconies from ancient Greece, to say that the modern era of accessory balconies was not strongly influenced by African architectural styles is disingenuous. This revelation of historical knowledge thus points to a natural tendency of black Americans to desire the front porch as part of their home; It shows a deep intrinsic connection to earlier traditions. The porch should serve as a model for how the design of homes in our neighborhoods is important to the culture(s) we deem essential.

For the African American community, the porch first represents the original gathering space. The design of the porch provides a directed access point for others in the neighborhood to come to one end at a neighbor’s house and discuss current events and activities in the area or to vent about life’s happenings. In black culture, it is common for young children on bicycles to gather around the porch and talk about school, sports, and music. A back porch provides a central place for families to grill and cook while lounging in the backyard during family gatherings and reunions. Secondly, the balcony represents impromptu communication between neighbors. If people are sitting on the balcony, and while there are also others passing by said building, it is not uncommon for neighbors to start a conversation, creating social interaction in the street. With people’s lives now, it can be difficult to schedule intentional time within the community. However, the balcony offers a viable option to make the neighborhood feel connected, even on a whim or during a fleeting moment. Finally, the balcony provides a natural deterrent to crime. Jane Jacobs coined the idea of ​​Eyes on the Street, which involves people acting as police in their neighborhoods by always keeping an eye on what is happening on the street. Although Jacobs coined the language, the idea has long been standard practice in African American communities. Like my grandmothers, having so many individuals coming and going from their porch all day makes it difficult for criminals to commit nefarious acts without being caught. It became possible to make any number of people pay attention to the activity of the neighborhood since there was a balcony to make this possible.

According to the Home Builders Association, in 2018, 65 percent of all new single-family homes had front porches: the second time in the past 20 years that percentage has exceeded 65 percent. Although data is not available on new home construction compared to porch additions, specifically in black neighborhoods, one can speculate that those with porch additions are at a similar or lower rate. In an era when cars dominate the streets and housing design is in an age of global reinvention, the balcony should remain a part of the home. The National Museum of African American History and Culture has a balcony along the south entrance, which is symbolic of the importance of this architectural feature to the black community. To remove the balcony in black communities means to remove the culture. Mere urban design means preserving the characteristics of homes in minority neighborhoods that keep the culture of that minority group alive and well. On our journey with New Urbanism, may we continue to protect the balcony.

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