“Sit down a spell. That can wait.” That’s the mantra of the Professional Porch Sitters Union, a somewhat tongue-in-cheek organization founded in 1999 by Claude Stephens of Louisville, Ky. The Union got its start when Stephens and a group of friends gathered on his porch after a busy day of meetings on behalf of an organization to which they belong.
Kim and Matt Thompson relax on the porch of their Waterford home overlooking the Niantic River.
“We had just sat through these meetings with agendas,” he says. “Then we came to the porch and we were sipping bourbon and drinking lemonade and talking, and we all felt we were getting more done there — just sitting casually — than we had in the meetings.”
So the Union was born, and its mandate was simple.
“There are no rules. There are no dues. You don’t have to attend meetings. You don’t have to do anything. Well, you do have to sit on your porch, whatever that means to you,” Stephens says.
And yet there’s a pretty serious theory behind what looks at first to be a silly crusade. And that theory is probably why the Professional Porch Sitters Union and Stephens (known in porch-sitting circles by his porch-sitting alias, Crow Hollister) were featured last summer in a piece on National Public Radio and in media worldwide after that.
“People have abdicated their responsibility for creating their own entertainment to other tools,” Stephens explains. “Television and air conditioning are two of the biggest tools — they drove people inside, away from the porch, which used to be the pleasant place to be when the house was hot. When that happened, when people began staying inside, communities began failing. To return to the porch is to return to community. It’s the interface between your private life and your community.”
Martha Conn thinks he’s on to something.
“I agree wholeheartedly with the idea that porches bridge the gap between inside and out,” the New Londoner says. “People often comment that the only time they meet their neighbors is when there is a blizzard and people join in to help dig each other out. Porches allow for that sort of casual contact during spring, summer and fall, with folks walking their dogs, strolling their babies or sitting across the street on their own porches. The contact might only consist of waving and maybe a little small talk about the weather or the dog or the baby, but over time you get to know each other and become real neighbors.”
And Kim Thompson of Waterford has certainly found that to be the case. Since replacing their old porch with a new wraparound version, they’ve been sitting outside almost nonstop and meeting people at the same pace.
“We’re on the porch when I’m not cooking and when we’re not working,” she says. “Even in January — year-round, we’re out there. And somebody’s always stopping by: people walking by, people who are working on their own houses will stop by to talk about it, people who drive by will beep … We’ve made a lot of new friends.”
All three porch enthusiasts have suggestions for what makes a porch perfect.
Says Stephens, “My opinion is hat it has comfortable places to sit, and that it is protected from weather, and that it is between your private world and your community. A deck in the back isn’t going to do it. If it also has amenities like the ability to have nice music, maybe wind chimes, a place to put some favorite reading material, places to set drinks … that’s nice, too.”
Thompson’s take: “It’s got to be inviting. You need the rocking chairs and the flowers and the plants. It needs to be friendly-feeling. You’ve got to have the lounging area.”
And Conn adds, “I think the only real requirement for a good porch is that it must have room for a few chairs, including at least one rocker. A transistor radio is handy for ballgames, too.”
She now lives in the home she grew up in and her porch-sitting prowess was honed early on.
“The porch has always been our most important ‘living room’ during the summer months. We continue my parents’ tradition of relaxing out there after work most every day in the summer, and frequently cooking and eating our dinner there as well. When there were babies around, there was always a porch swing, and we also used to have a hammock strung between two posts, with a rope to tug every once in a while to start the swinging again.
“Our favorite time to head to the porch is after work, around sunset and up until dark. It’s a great place to share the news of the day and unwind with a glass of wine or beer and a bowl of peanuts. Other than evenings, if I get up in time, I love to sit in the early morning sun with a cup of coffee and read my paper.”
She may not know it, but her time on the porch has an impact on her environment, according to Stephens.
“That simple act (of sitting on your porch) helps repair communities,” he asserts. “It does other things, too. It reduces crime. I don’t know of specific studies, but I bet you could prove that in communities where people sit on porches there are fewer crimes because there are eyes on everything. And children have a much larger range of allowable activity. If it’s just you that watches a child, you can only let them go so far. But if you know your entire neighborhood is going to be watching that child, you’ll allow them to go a little farther. It’s not just children, it’s senior citizens. If you don’t see them on the porch for a few days, you might go over and discover they’re not well. It’s a communication safety net.
“A porch, to me, is not necessarily an architectural feature,” he continues. “It really helps develop a community.”