Try it. Who knows, you may even like it.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The return of the front porch

By Dick Hirsch

For years the front porch was virtually absent from contemporary home design, supplanted by the patio or the deck which were located far from public scrutiny in the seclusion provided by the backyard.

But I sense things are changing. I drove down our old street a few days ago and found that front porches of various configurations and sizes had blossomed on a number of homes. When we left about 20 years ago there was not a single front porch. Each home did have a concrete stoop with a wrought iron railing and three steps leading to the front door. Although sometimes children might sit there for a brief interlude, the stoop was merely an entry point, a passage leading from ground level to the house. The stoop never contributed any style to the appearance of the building. A front porch, however, creates additional living space and provides more opportunities for observation and socialization.

The front porch began to fade from construction plans during the suburban building boom of the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. It is difficult to cite a specific reason; there were many contributing factors. Budget constraints would surely be one; it cost more to frame and a build porch than to have a stoop.

A more compelling reason may have been the desire for privacy. The new homeowners focused their attention on the backyard instead of the front. Relaxing moments were spent there. Homeowners might at first place chairs on the lawn and later decide to add a patio or deck, with direct access from the house. Thus was created a back porch, a place removed from the mainstream, where one could be undisturbed.

While the front porch encouraged casual contact among neighbors and passing strollers, the back patios or decks, being out of sight, emphasized isolation. The front porch seemed to provide an open invitation to passersby from those sitting there to exchange a few words and perhaps be invited to stop and take a seat on the porch. It was a seasonal living room, an especially welcoming place during hot, humid weather. Another factor contributing to the demise of the front porch may have been the availability of home air-conditioning.

I haven’t had much experience with front porches and maybe that is why I’ve always been intrigued by them. When I was very young my grandmother lived in an upper flat on a block long street on the west side and one of the attractions of a visit there was a chance to sit on her second floor front porch and look down on the passing scene. In addition to that, until recently I had just two specific memories of porches I sat upon. One is at the Hotel Lenhart in Bemus Point on Lake Chautauqua, where the rocking chairs on the big porch are all painted in bright primary colors. The other is in New Jersey where my college roommate lived in an historic home with one of those great wraparound front porches, the kind that encompass the entire front of the building as well as most of one side. When I visited he was well equipped with rockers and, as old grads we rocked, had a cold drink and reminisced.

I added a new chapter to my front porch experiences a few weeks ago, sitting with my wife, Lynn, on what may be the longest, most famous, front porch in the US. It is at the historic Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan. I had seen pictures in brochures but no photograph can portray the scope and the panache of that porch, looking down upon a lush expanse of lawn and gardens.

I paced from one end to the other. I measured it at 660 feet, but even if that estimate was a little generous, the porch is easily the length of two football fields. I did not count the chairs, mostly rockers, but there are plenty. We spent most of the time sightseeing on the small island, but reserved two interludes for just sitting, chatting and rocking. I realize that fitness advocates stress that it is advisable to keep moving, that the sedentary life is frowned upon. But, hey, a little time spent on that front porch---or any front porch---can provide some restorative benefits. Between jogging, walking, cycling and other activities, some occasional porch sitting must have its advantages.

Coming soon: the enduring appeal of the rocking chair and the important role it can play in a physical fitness regimen.


Monday, September 10, 2012

The case of the escaped pigs

By Dick Hirsch

I don’t mind admitting I’ve been doing it every single day for years and I have no plans to quit. This is not just a habit. It far surpasses the habitual category; it qualifies as an important part of my life and if I don’t do it I feel sluggish, bereft and jittery.

I am talking about reading the morning newspaper. Like many members of my generation I worry about the future of print journalism in the face of the rising tide of competition from the Internet. I am not a confirmed Luddite. Of course I routinely check my computer for news but it just isn’t the same. Even when the identical story is published on a newspaper’s own web site for me it doesn’t have the same impact as reading it on newsprint.

Here is an example, a story I found a few weeks ago in The Oneonta Daily Star. The headline read:

“Officer captures 1 of 2 pigs loose in Oneonta.”

Before we continue please ask yourself whether you would have read that story or whether you would have skipped over to an article about a City Council debate on reconstruction of a sewer line. I bet on the missing pigs.

The pig story began: “One of two pigs reported Sunday to be on the loose in Oneonta has been caught. The Oneonta Police Department is on the lookout for the other, Chief Dennis Nayor said Wednesday. “Callers reported the pigs were seen behind Morabito’s on Carbon Street.”

A three column photo of Tim Cuozzo, the animal control officer who took the pig into custody, accompanied the story, which detailed the successful investigation, apprehension and detention of the one and the search for the second. The story, by reporter Denise Richardson, also contained further details about the local ordinance that prohibits harboring domesticated pigs.

The pig was turned over to a local veterinarian who reported she was gratified that authorities did not resort to force in the capture. Instead a trap was baited with cat food. The vet reported the animal was frightened but in otherwise good condition, and available for adoption and placement in a suitable setting.

I was on a brief  visit to the Oneonta area when I picked up a copy of the paper, spotted the pig story on page 3, and immediately read it. I would imagine it was one of the best read items in whole edition. Why? Because it was a unique story with strong local interest, exactly the kind of news that differentiates true local coverage with the brain-numbing news reports that consume so much time and space in every medium.

The late Congressman Thomas P. ”Tip” O’Neill, once Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives, is famously remembered for this axiomatic observation: “All politics is local.” Directly related to that opinion would be a similar comment about news; local news is the most valuable commodity for newspapers.

Warren Buffett stressed that approach in June when he paid $142 million and bought 63 supposedly failing newspapers. At the time he advised: “I believe newspapers that intensively cover their communities will have a good future.” The job of each editor, he said, is to make the paper indispensable to anyone who cares about what is going on in the city or town...”thoroughly covering all aspects of area life, particularly local sports.” That would include intense coverage of public hearings before various agencies, obituaries and feature stories regarding individuals and organizations. I’m sure that Buffett would have blessed the story about the capture of the one pig and the dragnet for the other.

What makes news? It has an indefinable quality but the compelling stories are the ones that affect the most people as well as those that are somewhat unique. One well-remembered adage often recalled by editors is this: “If a man bites a dog, that’s news.” The pig story certainly qualified in the Oneonta area and you can be certain that Officer Cuozzo saved a clipping.

Don’t underestimate the value of the clipping as a keepsake. It is one enduring advantage offered by print journalism that is unique, a benefit that cannot be duplicated by other purveyors of news on the Internet. Would the text of an Internet article laser printed on a sheet of bond paper ever qualify for pasting in anyone’s scrapbook? I doubt it. Will the historic or sentimental appeal of the clipping help to save print journalism? Time will tell. Remember: you read it here first.