Houston Heights

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.