front porches

Front Porch, Back Porch

We proved our thesis quite by accident.  After a long day of hunting for our first house, we decided to drive by a couple of the homes we’d seen earlier in the day for another look.  As we drove up to the red house, I slowed the car to a crawl as my wife and I discussed the pros and cons, and renovations both possible and necessary.   That’s when we saw them.  I daresay they saw us first.  The owners of the house were on their front porch, viewing us suspiciously as we criticized their home from inside my car.  Our eyes met for a brief moment.  There came to my face a sudden blush, self-conscious for no particular reason.  Well, maybe not no reason: their house had been filthy inside.  I sped away as we continued our conversation.

As idyllic as the Real Simple-ready front porches may seem, they can become messy places, bringing our private lives into public view.

We’ve been searching for a house for a couple of months now.  Our geographical preferences and financial limits have focused our search to two primary neighborhoods.  The difference between the two neighborhoods is striking, though the houses in both are of similar size and luxury.  But the neighborhood in which we currently rent and would most like to stay has one feature that makes it more desirable to us: front porches.

The front porches of the Houston Heights are the key to its character as a neighborhood.  In a sprawling metropolis like Houston, which grew primarily in the latter half of the 20th century, pre-war neighborhoods like The Heights are a rarity.  They harken back to the grubby, tough city that grew up around a muddy bayou and a convenient port, before Houston made the leap from oil-rich to oil-wealthy.  These homes date to between 1910 and the early 1940’s, when air conditioning was advertised instead of expected, and their primary social spaces are those front porches.

It is here that I must admit that far more articulate, academically respectable examinations of the social language of front porches have already been made, most notably by Richard H. Thomas.  There even exists a conservative/libertarian blog based on a longing for lost porch culture called Front Porch Republic.  But I’m not trying to write a doctoral thesis or start a political movement.  I just want a house that my wife and I can call a home.

Certainly we could find a home in Oak Forest.  This post-war neighborhood is separated from the Heights by that most post-war of all talismans, an interstate highway.  The houses are adorable little ranches that lend themselves well to a funky Mid-Century Modern decorating language, and they sit on expansive lots.  More accurately, though, they sit further back on those lots.  And the front porches are small or non-existent, lost in favor of covered patios attached to the back of the house.

It’s here that we find ourselves with a decision to make.  The houses in the mid-century neighborhood are more affordable, and generally larger, making it possible for us to stay in our first house for longer.  The neighborhood itself has been a steady middle class enclave for its whole fifty-plus years of existence, and is only getting more valuable as time progresses and people retreat back from the suburbs to central neighborhoods.  Buying there would be a safe, smart decision.

However, our desire for a front porch is threatening to overrule safe, smart thinking.  We want to see our neighbors, and be seen by them.  Urban life can easily become isolating, and even the most close-knit communities rely on the active participation of their members.  So we want to consciously be part of the neighborhood in which we live, and work for its peace and prosperity.  In the parts of the Heights that we can afford, that might mean putting up with guys across the street who have a minivan bench seat on their front porch, and more than putting up with them: befriending them, being their neighbors.

As idyllic as the Real Simple-ready front porches may seem, they can become messy places, bringing our private lives into public view.  Many of these pre-war houses have a blessing of street-facing windows, and smaller front yards that put the living room uncomfortably close to the sidewalk.  Are we willing to be vulnerable like that?

In the post-war neighborhood, our neighbors would have to employ a telescope to peer into our dining room.  In fact, many of the living areas themselves migrate with the porch to the rear of the house.   These were homes built not only for the comfort of air conditioning, but for the entertainment of the television, yet another inward-facing social innovation.  When the neighbors are invited over, we congregate around the ‘tube or the back patio, taking in the grandeur of the back fence.

It’s also been pointed out that the post-war housing boom was automobile-centric, typified by suburbs within a reasonable driving distance of the business centers of town.  This, too, is reflected in our decision making: right now, I’m sitting at a coffee shop a scant two and a half blocks from our home, from which I can walk home.  The front porch houses we are looking at are also walking-friendly, with pubs, taquerias, and a particularly heavenly doughnut shop all within a comfortable distance.

Which isn’t to say that there aren’t fun, local places near the other neighborhood, but they’d all require hopping in the car and winding past blocks of houses to get to the main drag where they’re found.  The other infrastructure and amenities are considerably better, though: the grocery stores are newer and nicer, the bank branch more convenient, and so on.  The front porch neighborhood is decidedly lacking in these luxuries.

What would you do?   Follow your heart or your checkbook?  God willing, this will be the house to which we bring home our first child at some point.   It’s where we’ll entertain friends and neighbors.  Many meals will be cooked, shared, and enjoyed there.  But we don’t want to pay such a steep premium that those meals mostly consist of pork and beans.  And we have several friends who live in the post-war neighborhood and love it.  It’s quiet and kid-friendly, they tell us.

But we want the front porch.  We want to see what’s happening on our street. We want to welcome our neighbors to join us on the porch for a pitcher of margaritas or a cup of hot tea.  We want to hear the gossip, the nattering pulse of the community.  We want to recognize the kids who ride their bikes down the street after school.  We want to pay the premium for this, if the right house comes around.  And we want to see the grey Mini Cooper that’s rolling by with two quizzical heads eyeing our house.  Then we’ll wave.

The Liturgy of a Neighborhood

When my husband and I started to discuss where to look for a house, our preferences did not quite align. Johnny leaned toward the affordable suburbs of Katy, and I presented an unrealistic argument for a pricey, historic bungalow in one chamber of the heart of Houston – the Woodland Heights, our church’s neighborhood.

My husband’s practical wisdom prevailed, and walking into the two-story house in which we now live, we experienced the surprisingly truthful cliché: We just knew. I made it my mission to see the suburbs as I now see everything: to seek out what is rehumanizing right here, chain stores and all. Our neighborhood is very walkable, most of our neighbors are friendly, and we consider Cedar’s Mediterranean Grill & Market “our place,” offering the best hummus, hookahs, and Arabic music videos on the TV. We now feel as if the ‘burbs are home sweet home. However, if we won the lottery, we might be persuaded to move to one of those bungalows. Until that improbable day, my urban aesthetics are assuaged by driving to church every Sunday through the absence of notorious Houston traffic – it’s like God’s gift to the faithful.

As creatures of ritual and pleasure, our Sabbaths consist of a geographical trinity to which we migrate like birds to their homeland. We both work from home, so Sunday is our earliest day of the week. I am not a morning person. But, gratefully, Antidote Coffee is our first stop, its atmosphere just buzzed enough to gently wake fellow grumpy, slow risers. Cheery, multi-colored patio furniture awaits outside, and eclectic vintage furniture inside. Red brick walls sport local art and photography. The menu offers organic and fair trade coffee roasted in Marfa, Texas; organic artisanal tea, beer, wine, homemade baked goods, watermelon gazpacho, red bean hummus, and other delights. Happy hour includes spirits, of course, but also $1.00 espresso shots. The Beach Boys, The Kinks, and Old Country play overhead. They spin bad music at times, too, but at least it’s obscure bad music. The staff is attentive and kind – by now they know that Johnny takes his cappuccino wet with organic milk; they wait patiently as I rummage through the tea selection indecisively.

It’s a small, intimate space. I can’t help but eavesdrop on most conversations as they bounce off the stained concrete floor. And there’s no finding a secret, introverted nook in which to work or read. As I select a small wooden table or a velvet couch, I often have to ask a person, “Is this seat taken?” One afternoon, I poured my teapot of organic breakfast and spilled some of it in the process – very characteristically of me. A soft-spoken man chuckled in sympathy and asked what I was drinking, or spilling. I asked the same of him (Sencha green) and we oohed and ahhed over varieties of white tea, as well as our mutual preference for dark roast and chicory coffees. I discovered that he was born in France, adopted by an American family, and is now part of both families – he visits the French countryside regularly. I shared that my mom was adopted; her biological family is from Louisiana, and she, too, is part of both families. And when I said that just that morning, Johnny and I daydreamed of visiting Paris, the man said, “Oh, you should – there’s still a lot of magic in that city.” I marveled at this conversation with a kindred spirit-stranger.

Kaboom Books is right next door, a brilliant pairing. More rainbow-hued tables and chairs adorn the storefront, encouraging the enjoyment of coffee and used books here or there. The second Kaboom location is a little bigger and five minutes away, and our church is situated in the middle. The owners are a good-natured married couple, transplants from New Orleans after Katrina. We met the spunky red-haired wife, newly a Houston resident, and to our delight and surprise, she reported that they love their new hometown and neighbors.

I am not above a Barnes & Noble/Starbucks combo, but I do have a special place in my heart for the unshakable independents in our culture, and for the smell of old books. Kaboom’s tall, crude wooden shelves hold more mystery than a polished new store. Their selection musters up a literary faith in the face of uncertainty. Lately, I believe that I will find Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter on that high shelf with the B’s, though I cannot yet see it. Like the old bungalows in the neighborhood, these books spin yarns and tall tales to complement the story their pages hold. The front page might bear a reader’s name written with pencil or ink, provoking a sort of reverence in me as I flip through the pages, as if that long-lost soul is loaning it to me. Kaboom opens later than Antidote on a Sunday morning, so I wistfully peek into my dusty little sanctuary until I can step inside again. Sometimes we do so after church, or during the week. Our liturgy of the neighborhood is not just for the Sabbath, you see.

We hop in the car with to-go cups of caffeine and weave down Euclid Street for two minutes toward church. This neighborhood provides something suburbanites should cultivate: a deeper sense of community and beauty, which naturally pours into my soul as I spy porch swings, rocking chairs, hammocks, wind chimes, lush gardens bright with flowers, protective oak trees, and quirky art sculptures planted in front yards. The amicability also speaks from the bungalow architecture itself, with most homes boasting wide front porches that make hospitality visual. Friends drink wine on those shady havens in the evening, or sleepy-eyed fathers enjoy breakfast in solitude the next morning. History resides in these streets as well – old, tattered bungalows sit alongside newer models, but the Woodland Heights is committed to preserving “a hometown near downtown since 1907” and beautiful American Craftsman design. Change is good at the right time, but I still admire this small town within the big city, one determined to conserve historical architecture which tells a large part of Houston’s story.

The impetus for our Sabbath migration sits on the corner of Beauchamp and Byrne: Church of the Holy Trinity, a small Anglican parish. “Worship is primary theology. It is also home, which, as the saying goes, is the place where they have to take you in” (Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace). I grew up with Baptist mega-church roots, and so our little liturgical church feels exactly like our second family (after in-laws) with differences, squabbles, hugs, laughter, shared tears and joy, and all the rest. I actually know my priest – a far cry from a distant pastoral association, with a stage and bright lights. Fr. Doug loves local coffee shops, whiskey, good tobacco, the Coen Brothers, John Donne, Wendell Berry, and slow food, just for starters.

The liturgy suits people like me and Johnny, and many in the congregation – the artful-minded, craving visuals and symbols. We walk in the door to dip our fingertips in cold, holy water; trace a cross from our forehead to our chest; light a candle cupped in red glass to symbolize prayers weighing heavy on our hearts. I take a wooden pew under the St. Catherine of Alexandria stained glass. There is a still, sweet reverence under the wooden nave which looks like an upturned ark, drying out from a tragic flood. As we do “the people’s work,” peaceful repetition – kneeling, bowing, crossing – we embed Scripture and worship into our souls and movements. Liturgy is found in the pages of Genesis, the 1st century early church, and onward until now – more history rooted within a bustling, modern city. The music is both traditional hymns and new songs on guitar, piano, and djembe. Candles light the altar; incense tickles our noses and represents our collective prayers. When we walk out the door and gather on the patio, some smoke a cigar and others grab a Shiner (on tap in the kitchen). We adults sweat in a Houston summer, and the kids run helter-skelter on the playground. We take our worship back out into the old-and-new-bungalowed neighborhood – as they welcome us, we hope to welcome them into our home the next week, signaled by church bells sounding through the ‘hood.

Urbanites seek refuge from the traffic and workweek cacophony, and our activities are almost unconscious liturgical repetitions. We work with our hands in our home or in an office, completing similar tasks over and over again. We frequent our favorite places to eat, drink, and refuel. We are created to gravitate to rhythm, order, beauty, and our incarnational five senses. Or perhaps we rebel against these forces, our fallen dance.

But we are to live within our culture, our eyes roving for what is true, good, and beautiful – such as the Menil neighborhood, houses of art which continue to nourish and protect me. But even more nourishing and protective are our church, Antidote’s small town hospitality, and Kaboom’s cozy inspiration – making the Woodland Heights our second neighborhood. It’s like Isaiah said: “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” And so we drink coffee & tea, read, and worship; return to our suburban neighborhood, rest, repeat – revisiting the rhythm of our Bayou City Sabbath after Sabbath, a world that ought to be, without end, amen.