Thursday, July 3, 2008

Sitting on the porch

I lived in Knoxville, TN for a number of years in the early 1980’s and sweltered through several summers. I had come from the Bay Area where the temperature rarely goes above 70 degrees or below 50 degrees even on the hottest and coldest days, and where humidity is unusual except in our very short (and sometimes non-existent rainy season.) Further, no matter how hot it is during the day, it always cools off at night. In fact, it can be really cold when the fog rolls in and people have to carry jackets or wear layers to accommodate the shifting weather. So, to have temperatures hover in the 80’s day and night, with 90% humidity was a big change. My house did not have air conditioning, and I actually dislike air conditioning anyway, so attempted to survive by creating cross drafts and sitting outside in the “cool” of the evening. During that time, I came across a doctoral essay about how air conditioning destroyed the social fabric of many communities. Once air conditioning was installed, people did not sit on their porch of an evening. They did not exchange pleasantries with neighbors outside, or keep up to date with the latest happenings that would be told to them by people passing by and stopping to talk. They even began to build houses without front porches. They got in their cars in their garage, opened the door with their remote door opener, went to work, and came home the same way, never having to even encounter the heavy, sweaty, languid air, or the people that might be out in it.

These last six months, I have been living in Montreal and much of that time it was way to cold to sit outside. But now that it is officially summer, everyone is out as much as possible all the time. And I notice something about Montreal which is that almost every apartment, even in very poor neighborhoods, has a front balcony. Many apartments (like the one we have) have two balconies, front and back. Montrealers trade having a lot of indoor space for having outdoor space. People sit on their balconies and watch the world go by. While many people may have an air conditioner, I rarely hear them being used. To be sure, this has been a slightly cooler spring than some, and maybe in the height of the heat of summer, there will be fewer people on their balconies. But I can’t help but wonder the relationship between these liminal spaces (transitions from indoors to outdoors) of porches, balconies, front stoops, etc, and the involvement of Montrealers in every aspect of their public life. My neighborhood, the Plateau, uses a “participatory budget” process to determine what the neighborhood wants in terms of more trees, more social housing, more or less parking. The majority of people vote, give away money and volunteer. The city hosts one festival after another—in the winter a series of film festivals, followed by the Fringe Festival, and now the Jazz Festival. We leave before one of my favorites, the Just for Laughs Festival.

I have a small front porch at my house in California. I am going to put a chair out there and experiment on myself. What kind of person will I become if I sit on my porch in the evening?