One morning I woke earlier than usual and couldn’t go back to sleep. I crept out of bed, got dressed and made coffee without waking my boyfriend John, though our new puppy was alert as soon as I pushed back the covers. Her eyes followed me as I left the bedroom, but she was content to stay on the bed, nestled behind my boyfriend’s knees, while I made my way outside.
My hair mussed by sleep, crusties in the corners of my eyes, I ventured out onto the front porch and settled into the new Adirondack chair I recently purchased for this purpose. I sipped coffee and watched the neighborhood rise with the sun. The day, like many days in New Orleans, promised to be hot and humid, but the morning still held onto a dew-kissed coolness as the sun peeked out from behind the rooftops. The bird chorus amplified as the light and warmth of the day grew, and neighbors stepped out of their front doors to head off to work, take a jog, or, like me, relax on the porch with a cuppa Joe.
Architecturally speaking, a porch is “a covered shelter projecting in front of the entrance of a building,” but in literature, it wears a heavier mantle, especially in prose set in the Southern U.S. Alabama-born Harper Lee employs the porch over and over again in To Kill A Mockingbird to emphasize societal hierarchies between people of different races, classes and even ages. Famed playwright Beth Henley uses the porch as an kind-of no man’s zone in her play Crimes of the Heart, as well as in the film adaptation, set in her home state of Mississippi. It acts as a transition, a space where secrets can be overheard and sins confessed without judgment from the outside world, or from inside one’s ever-discerning family. And Louisiana’s-own Rebecca Wells’ porches are spaces imbued with the bonds between women, friendship and security in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.
In New Orleans, this “lost room” or every-day stage is an integral part of daily life for those who inhabit them. For transplants like myself hailing from the ranch-style, boxy suburbs of Northern California, or even the porch-less masses living in the outskirts of the GNO, this space takes a little getting used to. What are the rules of etiquette surrounding the porch? Are there dos and don’ts? In this town, it seems like anything goes!
Hospitality and community spirit are no joke in this town. Locals will oftentimes be seen waving from their porch, whether you’re a stranger passing on the streetcar, or touring the neighborhood on foot. Both friends and strangers can be engaged in conversations, either from the street or even leaning out from your car window. In fact, in many New Orleans neighborhoods, the homes are so close together, that conversations from porch to porch are an everyday occurrence. Not to mention some of the best parties are ones spilling out onto the porches and galleries!
Oftentimes, the porch can act as a stage, both figuratively and literally. To start, you’re sure to see decorations for every major holiday, including a few you may have not heard of, adorning Big Easy stoops. Just visit us during Halloween to experience porches (and gardens) filled with skeletons and ghouls, haunted laughter emitting from animated monsters in rocking chairs, and barrages of bats and flitting ghosts.
Naturally, you’d expect to see some purple, green and gold porch bling during Mardi Gras, but ever since the pandemic, Carnival home décor has taken on a whole different dimension. When the parades didn’t roll due to shutdowns in 2021, the New Orleans community came together and celebrated our beloved holiday with the emergence of the “House Float.” Denied the colorful and creative floats, bands and music, New Orleanians turned their homes into gorgeously gaudy, colorful and oftentimes themed stationary parade floats with porches playing a major role. Eaves and porticoes were festooned in massive, papier maiche flowers, and colorful lights edging scenes depicting everything from Alice & Wonderland and the local, iconic Cafe Du Monde, to Little Shop of Horrors and Under the Sea. These wondrous house floats were so popular, that during the pandemic, expats and sympathizers from around the world followed suit, decorating their own homes honoring the spirit of New Orleans’s annual Mardi Gras celebrations.
Another wonderful porch-related outcome from the shutdowns was the emergence of porch concerts. Musicians all over the city were scrambling to make ends meet, so along with virtual concerts, they started playing music on the stoops of their homes, or their friend’s homes, where neighbors could remain outside, bring their folding chairs and loosely gather to enjoy live music for a small tip (sent through Venmo or Zelle). The proliferation of live music is something we took for granted . . . and something we missed desperately when it was gone.
Mostly, porches are an excellent place to sit and enjoy river breezes, the warmth of the sun, and the sincere, congenial community in which you live. And if you don’t feel like being social? All you have to do is step back inside.
*Article originally published in the April 2023 issue of Where Y’at Magazine