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Summer Chillin’ on the Porch: Reclaiming “Front Porch Culture”

by Eryn Moris, photos by Peter DiAntoni

In Milwaukee the population appears to rise with the temperature, and July is a month for lazy afternoons and sticky summer nights best spent on the porch. In fact, July 7-13 is National Porch Awareness Week – a campaign dedicated to leisurely time spent on our neglected front porches, steps, and lawns, with an emphasis on “front-yard culture” and interaction with neighbors and passers-by. All summer long a porch acts as an infinite and inexpensive source of entertainment. It’s an ideal place to eat, read, nap, cook, socialize, and interact with the people in your community, all of which cost little to no money. Check out the NPAW website, www.npaw.org, for suggestions on how to make your porch habitable with used furniture and hanging plants, as well as tips for barbequing and beating bugs. Over the past four years I’ve collected a few pieces of gently-worn furniture off the street for use on my porch – a couch wheeled on skateboards from down the street, some chairs my upstairs neighbors deemed too tacky for the attic space, a water-ringed end table. These stay protected from the elements by an overhang and provide a FREE, comfortable place to enjoy NOT having air conditioning and cable television. Whether drinking my morning coffee and watching drivers blow through the stop sign, taking an afternoon nap or grilling up some dinner, I appreciate every warm day as another Wisconsin winter draws slowly nearer.

From my porch I’ve watched my neighbor’s child grow from an infant in a car seat to a little boy taking his first steps. I’ve been lured into the street to play Frisbee or catch with the kids down the block. I’ve shared countless beers and barbequed meals with friends and neighbors who might have otherwise remained strangers. It’s hard to be aware of your neighborhood unless you actually take the time to look at it. Riverwest is home to hundreds of fabulous but underused porches. Unfortunately, if you go about furnishing your porch the way I did, for free, the city may decide to punish you for not having proper patio furniture. The furniture on my porch is disposable yet tasteful, I think, and I’ve never received a complaint from a neighbor regarding its aesthetics. However, the City of Milwaukee has joined over a dozen communities across the country in placing a ban on “furniture designed or manufactured for indoor use, including, but not limited to upholstered furniture, left exposed in an outdoor area, including unenclosed porches.” (See sidebar.). This assault on comfortable and affordable outdoor furniture began in places such as Wilson, NC, where the town’s Appearance Committee decided that upholstered furniture kept outdoors provided a haven for rats and fleas. Now, if my couch was harboring rodents and insects, I certainly wouldn’t want to sit on it and would probably get rid of it, but shouldn’t that be for me to decide? In Boulder, CO, the riot-prone University Hill neighborhood’s Action Group proposed the ban to limit the resources of arsonists looking to build an impromptu bonfire. I find it difficult to believe that the owners of the furniture are offering up their couches to the rioting mobs, and I’m just not sure that adding new laws regarding the types of furniture allowed on porches will help police enforce the old laws regarding theft and arson. And so these bans are sweeping the country, in communities in Pennsylvania, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Washington, and right here in Wisconsin, in a noble attempt by our legislators to prevent arson and rodent infestation and promote neighborhood “beautification.” Ah, beautification! Because, really, a couch on a porch just screams “white trash” or “ghetto.” Beautification! Because Martha Stuart’s patio collection is just so much more tasteful. Beautification! Because the proper place to enjoy a hamburger and a beer really is a chaise lounge. I’m all for reasonable strides toward beautification, such as neighborhood trash clean-ups and efforts by homeowners to fix up their property, but this attempt at beautification smells too much like gentrification to me. Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 7 – July 2003

The Laws That Govern Porches

In November, 2001, Milwaukee’s Common Council passed an ordinance prohibiting furniture designed or manufactured for indoor use, including, but not limited to, upholstered furniture, left exposed in an outdoor area, including unenclosed porches. The ordinance states that in order to eliminate a potential source of rodent harborage, visual blight, and fuel for fires, such furniture shall be included in the bulky waste category of solid waste in section 79-12 of the Milwaukee Code of Ordinances, which relates to littering. The police, the department of neighborhood services and the department of public works may issue citations of up to $120 to any person violating section 79-12, and each day of violation constitutes a separate offense. The ordinance is not always enforced. My porch was furnished with at least three pieces of upholstered furniture throughout last summer. The police make regular passes through my neighborhood, and I had conversations on two occasions with on-duty police officers on my porch regarding burglaries in the neighborhood without being issued a citation. Should you receive a citation and decide to get rid of your couch, might I suggest that you call the Sanitation Department to have it removed immediately from in front of your house. According to the ordinance, furniture placed on the curb may also be considered bulky waste, and therefore is punishable by a fine.

Jackie, Nekeitha, and Nikki on a Wright St. porch.