Of Porches and Backyards in Chicago

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.

Our porch

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.

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18 Responses to Of Porches and Backyards in Chicago

  1. ellen shubart May 24, 2010 at 11:16 am #

    I remember porches although with a bit more fondness. We used to use the porch — and we lived on the second floor of a six flat in West Rogers Park — as an extension to our apartment in the spring, summer and fall. We put out the train tracks, the cars and ran them all around. But the highlight was sleeping out there when the weather got Chicago-hot-and-humid. The “big boys” next door, teenagers when we were grade schooler-s, slept out there all summer long. We begged for it all the time and only slept out perhaps once or twice a summer. But porches still remind me of wonderful summer days.

  2. Frances May 24, 2010 at 11:31 am #

    We left the apartment before I was old enough to truly appreciate the porch.

  3. Dave May 24, 2010 at 4:01 pm #

    This brings me back to my grandparents apartment near the L station in East Rogers Park during the 50s. They lived on the first floor of a large court building with the standard gray painted porches. The neighbors from above and next door would chat on the porches periodically throughout the day. The building had no back yard as the porches were adjacent to the alley. The only play option was pinners against the wall on the street side. The building janitor was completely elated with my ball playing activity.

  4. Frances May 24, 2010 at 4:14 pm #

    We didn’t have much in the way of play areas, but it all sounds like so much fun. Playing tag in the alley, the game that scared the wits out of our parents, carried over from the old neighborhood to the new.

  5. Jennifer May 24, 2010 at 7:15 pm #

    When I was a child we didn’t have a porch like the ones you describe because we lived in a highrise, however we had one of those metal scaffold-type fire escapes. A lot of my neighborhood friends lived in buildings with those “Chicago porches” – and I loved going over to play at those houses, because we’d run through the gangways, up and down the stairs playing endless games of ‘hide and seek.’ Great post, Frances!

  6. arizona glass June 5, 2010 at 2:15 pm #

    It’s been my wife’s dream to have a large porch one day. We are still working toward that goal.

  7. Philip June 28, 2010 at 10:28 pm #

    Hey Frances, I love the new design of your website.
    Having moved to New York City long ago, the thing about Chicago I still miss most of all is those back porches. I think the city planners of long-ago Chicago learned a lesson from NYC and other east coast cities: Alleys for garbage pick-up and and a little extra open space make for a much more liveable city. In NYC there are no alleys! or back porches! We traipse up to the roof for open space , but it’s not the same.

  8. Frances Archer June 29, 2010 at 7:44 am #

    Philip, you’ve got to come back and visit one of these days. We’ll go on an alley tour.

  9. Shirley Hebert Nieman August 2, 2010 at 10:25 am #

    My family moved to Hollywood Park in 1956. We lived in a 3 story modern corner building which had the addresses of 3990 Hollywood Avenue and 5701 Kimball Avenue. It did not have the traditional back porch. Our back stairway was enclosed with landings that separated 2 apartments. The wonderful feature of our building was the huge backyard. The building was loaded with children and we all (adults included) spent our summers on the wonderful patio. I can remember myself and the children of the building conducting talent shows for the adults to judge on that very patio, playing hide and go seek for hours on end, baseball games in the alley (many a window got broken) bike decorating and riding contests, and the wonderful Spaulding Pinkies used to play pinners on the back stoop. Sheer fun filled days are the memories I have of our back yard patio. It was a time of complete joy and it warms my heart to read all your accounts of time spent in the 1950’s in beautiful Hollywood Park.

  10. Frances Archer August 2, 2010 at 11:20 am #

    I knew your building! I had friends in three families there during my years at Peterson. The Rose family and the Tenerelli’s on the top floor and Skolniks on the ground. floor. I always thought it would be really fun to live there.

  11. Shirley Nieman August 21, 2010 at 7:49 pm #

    I used to baby sit the Skolnik kids! I lived on both sides of the building. We started out on the Hollywood side and then a few years later we moved into the Kimball side apartments. The Skolniks did live in the garden apartment and we lived just above them on the first floor. I don’t remember the Rose or Tenerelli families. It was so much fun living there and I can say that it was so much fun because of the wonderful neighbors we had. Thanks again Frances for writing this article and bringing the past back to life for so many of us!

  12. Linda Gartz April 16, 2011 at 9:56 pm #

    Hi Frances,
    I just discovered your blog, and it evokes so many of my own Chicago memories. We lived in West Garfield park — and our back porch was one hub of our existence –especially in the summer. As you said — gray — battleship gray. Many a summer I helped paint that porch. We had a swing on the porch. The old ice box entry into our pantry was there. We ate on the porch on a nice summer night. My dad slept with us kids on the porch for adventures. We watched lightning and thunder storms, wrapped in towels after a bath — on the porch. I yelled to my friends (“Yo-oh, Barb! Can you play?”) from the porch. Hope you check out my blog. I’m early on in my family history in Chicago — Grandpa just about to head there where our family will live out the 20th century! Hope to drop by more often!

  13. Hope Owens October 15, 2011 at 6:18 pm #

    I must have been slightly afraid of heights as a child, as my memories of our porch system was more of fear of the banisters giving way as I leaned on them. Our landlord also did not paint them more than once in the decade we lived there, so when I was bored, I would flick off the peeling paint, to my mother’s chagrin.

  14. Frances Archer October 15, 2011 at 9:37 pm #

    Hope I still have the faint outline of a scar on my knee from falling down the porch stairs. And thanks for bringing back the memory of peeling paint. I remember trying to flick off large pieces. Hopefully there was no lead in it.

  15. Donald Cherry September 6, 2012 at 5:50 pm #

    I spent a lot of time with my cousins out on their porch near Devon and Western. Typical brick three-flat with one of those porches crawling down its back. In that neighborhood, and many others, the porches were all painted this sort of gray/blue. My aunt owned the building, so my cousins had chores, one of which was to take out the garbage. One day, my cousin Tim, my own age and more like my brother, talked me into standing at the foot of the porch while he dropped a bag of garbage down from the 3rd floor landing. We thought this would be more efficient than actually carrying the bag of garbage down the steps. Turns out once you add in the time needed to sweep the garbage up and put it back in the bag after it explodes on my head, and add the time required for my shower, it is not such a great idea.

  16. Frances Archer September 6, 2012 at 6:10 pm #

    Donald, to this day I can recall when the little boy down the block, Jackie, pushed me down the porch stairway, from the first floor to the ground. I was four.

  17. Donald Cherry September 6, 2012 at 7:23 pm #

    Frances, you might find the following post on my blog interesting, as it has some stuff about Chicago, porches, backyards, and the Cubs.

  18. Frances Archer September 6, 2012 at 8:38 pm #

    I love your site, Donald. Can’t wait to read in depth. Thanks for sharing your link.

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