2 October 2017
The Front Porch
When I was a kid, we played outside, a lot. My mom would shoo us out on warm summer days, cool fall or snowing winter ones and we'd head off on adventures not possible today. We wandered all over the neighbourhood, climbed trees and played in places we thought only we knew about. Riding our bikes everywhere with lunches tucked into our back packs, we would return home dirty and tired but oh so happy with stories and excitement from a day of freedom. We had the life but little did we know that there were always eyes on us and our parents knew where we were more than we thought.
Growing up in the late 70's and early 80's was a time when people still sat on their front porches and neighbours looked out for each other and their own with the same care. We didn't hide in our yards like today, closed off and independent of the world. We were connected to those around us by a network of phones, open doors and hellos. The people who lived next to you were an extension of your parents and you were respectful of them just because. We would feel like we ruled the neighbourhood and felt safe without even knowing it.
I think back to those days and wonder if that transition from sitting out front to the secluded fenced-in back yard has done some real harm to how we live our lives. I feel less connected to my current town and I've lived here longer than anywhere else in my life. When we first moved in I tried to emulate the memories of my youth and sat on the front porch most days after work, trying to connect with the people around me. I'd say hello to the neighbours as they hurried from their cars to the front doors of their homes, busy with their lives and routines. I found the street empty most days, despite the presence of young families, most stayed in their yards or at structured play at an indoor play place. Kids don't wander free despite the fact that the world around us, at least theoretically, has never been safer. Connected by cell phone, we should be encouraging more outside time not less. As the years went on, I would spend fewer nights out front and the ubiquitous back deck was built. I love what my Grotto has become, the refuge from the world and a place of great happiness for me, but I still lament the passing of that community feeling the front porch gave us.
We didn't know that as we rode around the streets of East Hamilton the network of Mom's, Granny's and others at home was at work. Looking for fun, we would spin around the school yard, creek and fields, having fun and creating our own worlds wherever we went. From building forts to racing down dangerously steep hills, we didn't think anyone was watching and were thrilled to be so free. But the reality is that we were always just one door away from help if trouble arose, you knew who you could run to when you needed it. It's probably a bit of nostalgia but a whole lot of reality as we see the elaborate yards people have built, hiding and cocooning away from the world. We don't reach out like we used to, no one would dare dream discipline or yell at kids today like was done when I was young. You knew if you did something wrong and got caught by the neighbour, your parents would come down on you with a vengeance. We had a connection that belied anything but giving a shit about where you lived. They did it because it was right and made the world a better place.
I'm not sure when it all went south, but I know in my heart that part of the transformation was the building of monster houses with tiny backyards that were almost all deck. High fences to keep out prying eyes, we turned inward at the expense of community and we are poorer for it. I wish I could say if we had kids I would be different but I am probably kidding myself because that infection of perceived danger has made its' way into my life as well. I have become the guy who comes home, gets comfy and lives for the routine life lived in the yard. Devoid of a connection, our world has shrunk and we are poorer for it.
I am sure there are great neighbourhoods out there, awesome neighbours who hang out and have fun, but in the larger picture, this is becoming an anomaly. I observe how people interact and see the closed doors and fences becoming more prevalent not less. We trust fewer people and hold closer the small nuclear family, leaving the world to others. Scared by the media and perceived threats, the leash of childhood freedom has been choked back to the yard and other supervised places, never to return. It makes me sad and I don't know what to do about it.
Can we ever go back? Am I just pining for "the Good Old days"? Or am I really seeing the future as it is. Have we retreated to our castles, drawn the bridge and filled the moat. Protecting kids from harm is what we say, but are we depriving them of experiences that would help them grow as people by hiding from the world and not being part of the larger community. I wave to everyone I meet and say hello, I have long been taught to make the small talk required to build friendship and that came from how I was raised. We wanted to know our neighbours because they were part of our lives, celebrating the highs and coming together for support when things weren't so good. Is it different now? Ithink it is and I know we are lessened because of it. Maybe it's time I start sitting on the front stoop again, at least then I'm trying to do something positive and maybe I'll make a new friend or two. See you out there, stop in for a coffee, I've got the time.