Before television, before radio, before the hundreds of beguiling distractions that have blessed (and cursed) the American family, there was the front porch.
This modest architectural feature of the typical American mid-century home served a distinct purpose. It was the private home’s antechamber to the public world. Particularly on long summer evenings, long before Netflix or Fox News was an option, people would sit in comfortable chairs, perhaps with a cool drink, on their front porches as a way to communicate to others one unspoken message: Yes, I’m at home, but I’m also in the mood to socialize.
It’s an image that’s both quintessentially American yet increasingly antique—someone out for a stroll, stopping to exchange pleasantries with the neighbor sitting on his/her front porch. Not only did it create and reinforce bonds of community, but porch sitting was a natural inoculation against street crime, vandalism and loitering.
Then came air conditioning and television, and almost overnight the front porch became purely ornamental. We’ve been struggling to connect with those closest to us ever since.
On Sept. 15, there is an event in Gilroy designed to put the front porch back at the center of domestic life—at least for one afternoon. It’s called Porchfest, and it’s part of a national movement that combines the front porch and live music (another pre-TV entertainment staple) in a simple expression of neighborhood solidarity.
Here’s how it works: From 1-6 pm on Saturday, several homes within a three-block area of west Gilroy will host a number of live musical acts on their front porch. Each group will play for about an hour, then make room for another group on another porch. For visitors, it’s all free.
Altogether, there will about 16 bands, groups or individuals taking part on or near Hanna Street between Third and Sixth streets. Not only is it a free event, as it has been for the four years it has happened in Gilroy, a remarkably un-commercial event. There are no gates, no security personnel, no food trucks. The street will remain open to vehicular traffic. The musicians have never been paid to perform, but in a switch from years past, this year, the musicians will be allowed to hawk their CDs at their performances.
“It’s the same thing as its always been,” said co-event coordinator Barbara Bottini. “The only thing different was how it came together a lot more smoothly and a lot more quickly. We have a lot of repeating musicians and porch hosts who wanted to participate again. They seemed to have really taken this under their wing and were quicker to respond this time.”
For insurance purposes, the organizers had to recruit some sponsors—South Valley Symphony, the Gilroy Downtown Business Association and VFW Post No. 6309. Otherwise, the intent is to keep this modest event as small-scale as possible.
“It certainly jazzes up the neighborhood,” punned Bottini. “The fact that the porch hosts generally come back year after year tells us we must be doing something right.”
Ed Saucedo lives with his family on Fifth Street, next door to his mother-in-law, former Gilroy mayor Roberta Hughan. He has been a porch host since the event started in 2014. The role, he says, is pretty undemanding.
“You keep a clean porch, you provide access for the musicians to use the restroom, maybe put out some cold water for them, make sure they have power. It’s pretty easy.”
Saucedo has a sizable shady front lawn, which he says can fit about 40 to 50 people comfortably. In past years, he has had an arrangement in which he’ll host one band for an hour, then his neighbor directly across the street brings on a band the next hour, followed by Saucedo again hosting a different band. “People can watch an hour of music on our side. And when it’s over, they just turn their chairs around and watch across the street for another hour. And when that’s done, they turn around their chairs again and they’re all set.”
The neighborhood is in a part of older Gilroy, and Saucedo says that visitors are often curious about his house and other houses in the neighborhood. Porchfest gives them a chance to ask a lot of questions about the homes. “It really gets people to talk to each other and ask questions and be friendly. It’s great. You really get that small-town feeling.”
“It’s a nice little event to break the ice and bring the community together,” says Raul Sermeno, a Hanna Street resident who has also provided his front porch since the event’s beginnings. “Not everybody attends. Some people never come out for it. But it has brought out neighbors to greet each other and (strangers) to see who’s in the neighborhood.”
Sermeno and his wife Mercedes have hosted several different kinds of musicians and groups, from a solo singer/songwriter to a full mariachi band. “Oh, it’s all different kinds of music—classical, German polkas, rock ’n’ roll, bluegrass. One year, we had the Gavilan College Jazz Band.”
The event is fun for the musicians, too, who are drawn from a variety of genres throughout Morgan Hill, Gilroy and San Benito County. “Last year, we were in a driveway,” said Jonathan Bass, who plays bass for the classic-rock group Train Wreck. “But the year before that, we played on a porch that spilled out onto the lawn. The audience is pretty much all over the sidewalk, the front edge of the yard and the driveway.”
At any given moment, there may be two or three groups performing at the same time. But, said Richard Simunic of the group Bluer Than Blue, “if we’re playing at the same time as someone else, they are usually far enough away—not next door, but four or five houses down—that it doesn’t cause problems. They’ve got it all worked out pretty well.”
There has been murmurs that perhaps the event should scale up, close off Hanna Street, expand to other streets, bring in food trucks, charge admission. But the impulse to resist those changes is strong among those who participate. “It’s something that seems to be catching on across the country,” said Simunic, who is originally from Ohio. “It’s really about community spirit.”
“It’s kind of nice this way,” said porch host Ed Saucedo. “I’m glad they do it. No one is trying to cash in on this thing. It’s just something really nice for the neighborhood.”
Saturday, Sept. 15, 1-6 pm
Hanna Street, between Third and Sixth