Ever since I read about vernacular photography in a friend’s blog, I’ve been thinking about my old family photographs. Most have purely personal significance. But those taken in our backyard during the late fifties and early sixties capture scenes that were, and still are, commonplace all over Chicago–and nowhere else.
I’m writing, of course, of that singular phenomenon, the Chicago porch.
A glorified fire escape
Understand by porch I do not mean anything resembling a deck or a veranda. In Chicago, a back porch is a primarily vertical wooden structure that consists of stairs and landings attached to the rear of an apartment building.
Here, for example, is a Slim Aaron photograph of Gwendolyn Brooks standing on her Chicago back porch in 1960. Behind her is a row of porches and backyards with all the usual trappings–clotheslines, utility lines, the Tree of Heaven.
Apparently this kind of structure is unique to Chicago. Architect Stanley Tigerman, quoted in the Washington Post, says they first appeared in the early 1900s as a result of the city’s layout into blocks with interior alleys, which left space for backyards and porches.
An unusual thing about Chicago porches: they nearly always were painted in some shade of grey, and if not grey, brown. They looked utilitarian because they were.
The Safe Porches Guide, on 47th Ward Alderman Gene Schulter’s website, explains how porches were first used: “Originally intended as a secondary exit for tenants in case of an emergency, the use of porches began to expand when milkmen and dry ice providers used the back porch as a means to deliver their goods and laundry was hung there to dry.”
The reason the Safe Porches Guide is on Alderman Schulter’s website has to do with a tragic incident in 2003 that put Chicago porches in national headlines. The weight of more than fifty people on a third-story porch caused the structure to collapse. Twelve people died.
From 1957 to 1962 we lived on the first floor of a two-flat near the corner of Argyle and Washtenaw in the Budlong Woods neighborhood. The building had a porch, and that’s my sister, Diane, standing at the base of it.
I didn’t think of the porch as a place to linger. Perhaps if we had lived on the top floor, the porch would have felt more like a private space and less like a public thoroughfare.
Although ours was open–some were enclosed–I remember it having too many creaky boards, too many splintered rails, too many dark corners. Just look at the dark hole behind the steps in the photo above; the gloomy entrance to the even gloomier basement. From the first landing I had a seemingly breathtaking view of our yard and of our neighbors’ yards and of our neighbors’ porches, but I was unable to see what might be lurking on the landing above me or the ground below.
Whenever I went out the back door, someone always shouted, “Don’t run down the stairs.” I say someone because in that flat we never were just parents and children. Families having live-in visitors, usually immigrants, were typical of our block.
“We were all just off the boat, and every boat was from a different country,” my mother would later say of that neighborhood at that time. As fairly recent arrivals from Cuba, my parents often housed acquaintances more newly arrived than themselves. In any event, all those warnings to walk, not run, down the stairs failed to keep me out of harm’s way. A little boy from down the block once pushed me down the porch stairs. It happened in 1960, and yet neither the scar nor the memory of Jackie’s defiant face have faded.
So, no, I didn’t linger on the porch. But the backyard, that was a different story. How we lived for the warm months and playing in our backyard. The landlord, who lived on the second floor, didn’t have children so we didn’t have to share the backyard.
Not that there was much to share. Look at the size of the neighboring yards seen in the background of the photo of my sister (on the trike) and me. Between our building’s porch and the landlord’s one-car brick garage, there was a connecting cement walkway and a patch of grass. Our wading pool, propped up against the building in the background of the photo below, covered more than half the grass.
The size of the backyard didn’t keep us from using it for all kinds of outdoor games and activities, including my favorite, dining alfresco beneath the porch.
In 1962, we moved from the two-flat in Budlong Woods to a house in Hollywood Park, a distance of less than three miles. Next week I’ll post pictures of the “new” backyard. In the meantime, have any porch stories to share?
Photo credit: Top photograph, Michael Lehet, 2005. Check it out on Flickr.