Charlotte, North Carolina is a beautiful city.
It is rapidly emerging, if not already arriving, as the financial center of the south, pushing Atlanta for bragging rights to the region. So aptly and elegantly called, the “Queen City” is towered over by gleaming new skyscrapers. Down below, wide, clean boulevards connect to shady, tree-lined streets of magnificent homes.
The civic leaders there have done a good job over the years of tidying up the inner city blight and improving the living conditions of its minorities. In short, Charlotte is a dynamic city on the move, fueled by the information age and white collar whiz kids, many from the north.
One brilliant spring Saturday morning, I walked along one of its upper middle class neighborhoods. Appropriately enough, the name of the tree-lined avenue was “Champaigne Street.” Giant boughs in full foliage hovered over wide sidewalks, divided from the streets by grass medians. Splendid homes in the half million dollar range sat like stately sentinels upon lush, manicured lawns.
An occasional jogger or hurried walker, in designer gym wear with electronic wiring devices anchored to their heads, were the only signs of life I saw on this breathtakingly splendid Saturday morning. The people I observed were unsmiling and somber, most times with their heads down, as if their stern exercise mission was simply a carry over chore from their frantic Friday workload in the city.
While leisurely strolling along this peaceful community of Norman Rockwell lore – made aesthetically more powerful in the splendor of spring – I noticed something was missing. There were no kids on bikes. No dogs. No neighbors visiting over back fences. No commands being yelled from upstairs windows by busy moms. No squadrons of small children frolicking in the yards.
A numbing absence of life in a heavenly world of splendor.
As I observed more closely this row upon row of impressive homes, I noticed something else was missing. There were no front porches.
Large, gargantuan homes of grand design and masterful craftsmanship had only stoops with occasional decorative columns – marking what amounted to only a front aperture to the building. I did not see one single wide-sweeping front porch with a swing, glider or wicker chair.
But this is the case, not just on Champaigne Street in Charlotte, North Carolina. Regrettably, this has become the norm for most of the modern, American neighborhoods, even in the sprawling new subdivisions in Smalltown, USA.
The life and soul has been suctioned right out of many of our neighborhoods. Why even people in my hometown of Kuttawa, Kentucky, may not know the couple living two doors down the street. To a large degree, architecture is serving to isolate us, not only from each other, but from the world around us.
Air-conditioning is the main culprit. No one these days, especially in the hot, muggy south, would want to live without it. But it is irrefutable that air-conditioning, along with television, have created cocoons of our homes in which we move about and become who we are, what we think, how we act.
People work in glass and metal cages all day, then speed home in airtight containers on wheels. We open garage doors without getting out of our cars and move into the cool and closed quarters of places we call home. Inside sits a large crate, sometimes massive enough to dominate an entire room. It immediately comes alive with news of bombings, murders and mayhem. This box spews forth a steady stream of perversion and decadence. There are some stations that broadcast bad news around the clock.
This steady stream of frightful events – most of them happening thousands of miles away – flood our homes during most of our waking moments. At last, with our heads full of bad news and insipid programming, we go to bed for the night – locked down like inmates in a cell block wing of a maximum security prison.
No wonder Americans are scared to death.
We have moved from the wonderful fresh air of our front porches to the darkened cells of the indoors, living on the first floor in all aspects of our lives.
There was a day – which we as Americans must recapture in some way – when we looked across our streets and country roads into the hedge row of our neighbors with a familiarity and openness of a first name and a daily greeting. Front porches made friends out of strangers. They brought home the wonderful scents of chicken frying in a skillet or a pie baking in the oven, and the noises of voices we knew. They made the morning sun and evening shade enter our own lives with the communal assurance that we – even in a sometime frightful and uneasy world – are not alone, and that in spite of it all, we are mostly good.
As a small boy, my family’s front porch was another living room. I remember one summer night when my mother had gone to spend a few days with my grandfather. My older sisters had been left in charge of homemaking. My father had gone to a Masonic meeting, and I was determined to wait up for him on the front porch. Sitting there on the glider by myself, I was serenaded by the wonderful nocturnal sounds of crickets, katydids, and frogs, as well as the low murmuring of neighbors sitting and conversing on their own front porches. As one would expect of a rambunctious barefoot boy, quieted by the soft summer night after a day of perpetual motion, I grew drowsy and fell asleep on the glider.
I woke up the next morning in my bed. Upon returning home, my father had found his small son sound asleep on the front porch and had lugged him off to bed. It was a fatherly rite performed by an endless number of men – yesterday, today, and forever. But sadly so, no longer from front porches.