Commentary: The Disappearing Front Porch

By Louis A. Zona
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Author Tom Nichols made the interesting observation that in decades past, homes were built with a prominent front porch overlooking the neighborhood.

Today, homes are built with a back deck. Much can be gleaned from his statement. For sure, it says much about the nature of daily life today versus yesterday and the general lack of social interaction in our neighborhoods, schools, work places and even places of worship.

One can, for example, feel the awkwardness when our priest or minister asks that we acknowledge the person to the left or right of us. A friend of mine is so embarrassed by this simple gesture of a handshake or neighborly smile that he simply refuses to take part. He is otherwise quite a friendly person but he draws the line at any kind of social interaction in church.

I am old enough to remember when things were quite different. The front porch, for example, was an important part of every family. In the summer months, it was not uncommon to see front porches filled with family and neighbors laughing and otherwise enjoying each other’s company.

Today, I dare say, that most of us are either unaware of our neighbors or unwilling to interrupt them as they walk their dog on the street past our front yard.

Acknowledgement might mean a friendly wave at suppertime at the person that we see driving a white Jeep each day. It sure is very different from the way it used to be when you not only knew your neighbors but they were seen as extended family.

To this day, when I see a former neighbor in the mall or pharmacy, hugs are always in order with a discussion of family to follow.

Growing up on Center Street in New Castle, Pa., I thought that one of our neighbors, Mary Sheldon, also my mother’s best friend, was a relative. Each day, Mary walked to the next block to have coffee with my mom and my mother never forgot Mary when bread was in the oven.

I remember returning from a day of classes at Youngstown University and stopping to hug Mary who was seated at our kitchen table. I turned on the television to see Walter Cronkite wiping the tears from his eyes as he told us that President Kennedy had been assassinated.

The three of us sat quietly crying at our kitchen table. Sharing that sad news with a very special neighbor will forever be burned into my memory.

In the early 1950s, television was beginning to be an important part of our lives and my father wanted one, no matter that he had to purchase it on Sears Roebuck’s layaway plan.

Having the only TV set on our street, it was not uncommon for the neighbors to fill our porch and sit on our kitchen chairs, even the piano stool, particularly on Tuesday nights when Milton Berle – Uncle Miltie – appeared on “Texaco Star Theater.”

I can still hear the neighbors laughing in unison when Berle would be hit in the face with a cream pie. Those were simpler times and thank God for our capacity to recall these special events in our lives via the magic of human memory.

The saddest part of Alzheimer’s disease is the loss of our treasured memories, such as sitting on the front porch on a hot August night enjoying Gino’s fish stories or Ross discussing his gastric distress.

I would just love to be sitting on my front porch right now talking about that day’s ballgame, which ended with Anthony hitting the ball through the windows of the Pennsylvania Engineering Works.

Who knows, maybe Uncle Miltie is getting smacked in the face again. And again. And again. Just maybe those two thugs who beat up Ricky and me on our way home from the theater are still chasing us down the sidewalk.

I do believe Dr. Nichols’ observation that new homes generally do not come equipped with a front porch. What good would they do for kids so hooked on video games that they wouldn’t even know what a front porch looks like, let alone having a use for it?

In defense of today’s young people however, they seem to be so attracted to technology that they would not have the time to hit a baseball through the windows of the Pennsylvania Engineering Works. But then again, kids today generally are not putting on baseball uniforms or hitting fly balls to their dad. The grand old game of baseball seems to now be relegated to such anachronistic ideas as high button shoes or front porches.

For sure, I must be showing my age or I would not be bothered by the disappearance of the front porch and what it has to say about neighborhoods and neighbors. Those of us of a certain age treasured our neighbors, especially during our youth.

I will never forget that I was able to buy a new front door as a Christmas present for my parents with money I earned from my first job. Our former front door was quite old and out of fashion.

So what did I do to hide this big and unusual Christmas present from Mom and Dad? I had it delivered to my neighbors Anna and Jim, who had room for it only in their kitchen. Now that is neighborly love! And that modern door sure looked good on our aged front porch.