City Sitting

City Sitting

Tuesday, September 8th, was Connecticut’s hottest day of the year. Gummy, viscous, gooey, the next day didn’t bring much mercy. Weathermen promised rain that evening, but it was taking its sweet time.

People were out on their porches. To ask why seems silly: it was hot. But in some neighborhoods, porch-sitting is an everyday institution.

Strong porch culture turns verandas and stoops into open-air living rooms. Friends and families sit together, and individuals sit alone. They call to neighbors walking by or sitting across the street. They pop cans and shoot the breeze while kids play with Skittle-colored plastic bikes and yard toys.

sponsored by

CityLove by Project Storefronts
Jason Ward has been a resident of Newhallville nearly all his life. “Before video games, we’d play outside and come back when the lights went on,” he remembers. For Ward, hanging out in front of his house was entertaining and productive, and it continued to be as he got older. So much so that when he moved to West Haven for a time, it was a bit of a culture shock. “People weren’t sitting out on porches. I didn’t know what to do for a minute.”

Ward says porch-sitting is “what keeps the bonds tight.” Time on a stoop is spent cultivating affinity, trust and mutual benefit—transforming an incidental grid of houses into a connected community. “We rely on each other,” he says. “I talk with older people who don’t have families, kids, husbands or wives. I interact with them… and when they’re around the younger kids don’t act out as much.” The old keep the young in check, and the young keep the old company.

Down in the Dwight neighborhood, outside an apartment complex at 365 Orchard Street, Mrs. West and Mrs. Demetrius sit and talk. Both women call out a greeting to Mrs. Shirley, an elderly woman wearing a tie-dye shirt about two sizes too large. “We keep an eye out for her,” says Demetrius.

During the summer, she says, families living in the complex get together and throw parties in the rear courtyard. They grill, play music, and inflate a bounce house for the kids. “It’s been a good summer,” Demetrius says, smiling— “one of the best we’ve had,” largely because the house across the street, a hangout for local toughs, was recently vacated. “There used to be kids out on the street at night unattended,” says Mrs. West, “And the noise!” When asked about another hotspot behind their complex, Mrs. West remarked, “What happens there is none of our business, as long as it’s not around our kids—because then we’ll say something. We’re not afraid.” As with West and Demetrius, porch-sitters can serve as an informal “neighborhood watch,” especially in parts of town where security is seen as a personal responsibility.

Knowing your neighbors can have other practical benefits. Back in Newhallville, Ward introduces me to Harb and Shatha Yaser, an Israeli couple that owns Country Market, a corner store at the intersection of Munson Street and Shelton Avenue. When Ward is in a pinch he knows he can come to the Yasers. “They know me … when I’m short on cash and don’t have food in the fridge. They know I’m here every day. They know I’ll pay them back. Maybe we can work something out.”

Ward believes people that live in more financially stable neighborhoods don’t interact with their neighbors as much. He suspects it’s because they don’t need to.

Passing from Newhallville over Prospect Hill and into East Rock, the houses, on average, get more expensive-looking and the entryways grander, and though nearly all houses along Orange Street have the necessary equipment, porch people don’t seem as common.

But maybe they should be. Porch-sitting adds an inimitable vibrancy to a neighborhood, and the seeds are probably already planted, as they are in various pockets of the city. On that muggy Wednesday three weeks ago, a Bangladeshi man smoked on his Chapel Street porch. A Chinese grandmother sat quietly on Prospect Street while her grandkids ran circles round her. On Dwight Street, an Ohioan studying at Yale played a jig on her fiddle.

As evening approached, the wind picked up and blew away the hot, boggish haze. Something in the turn of air, a change in pressure or a freshness of smell, foretold imminent rain—most closely and comfortably experienced, of course, from the cover and company of a porch.

Written by Daniel Shkolnik. Photos 1, 3 and 4 by Dan Mims. Photos 2a and 2b by Daniel Shkolnik.

More Stories