Maybe the Grass Really is Greener When you Cross the Fence (or Porch)

It’s crazy how one evening takes you from 2011 to 2012, and yet time feels no different. All that has changed is signing the date with a 2 at the end of the year instead of a 1, which always takes a little while to get the hang of.

New Year’s Eve is a liminal or in-between time, on the cusp of two different years. Thinking about liminality brings me back to 2011 where I spent the majority of the year reading, researching, and writing about liminality – not in temporal terms, but spatial ones in the city.

Part of my Master’s essay discussed the role of liminal or threshold spaces in shaping characters and community. In Wayson Choy’s fictional novel All that Matters, which narrates the challenges of a Chinese family settling in Vancouver’s racialized Chinatown during the 1930s and 40s, porches play a surprisingly major role in fostering encounters and even friendships between characters of different ethnicities, such as the Chinese boy Kiam-Kim and his Irish neighbour Jack. You can tell why when you look at the spatial proximity of these Chinatown houses and their porches:

While maybe some people don’t like being that close to their neighbours, I’ve lived in a couple of apartment buildings over the years and have regretted the fact that I didn’t even know my neighbours – let alone their names – and here we were living in the same community! Sadly, I didn’t make that much of an effort either. I’m not saying space or design necessarily solve the problem of parochial living, but they certainly help foster neighbourly interaction.

I think it’s a shame that in the post-war era of suburban sprawl, patios replaced porches. Why? Richard Harris explains: “After the austerity of the post-war years, houses and lots soon expanded. As family life turned inwards towards the backyard and the rec room, porches lost their purpose.” Patios are accessed by going through or around to the back of the house. They don’t face the street, unlike porches, which, as a result, have more potential for creating a dynamic street life. The patio is a retreat; the porch is an invitation to meet passers-by, extend a greeting, and maybe even strike up a conversation.

Porch on a Chinatown house in Vancouver

Suburban House in North Van with a Patio

We’ve all heard it said that good fences make good neighbours, but I would challenge that maxim by saying fences don’t make neighbours at all, especially if you never cross them and meet the people with who you share a border.

Why are we so content to stay in our safe bubbles and not to reach out to the “other”? Do we really have so much, if anything, to lose? On the contrary, urban theorist Richard Sennett thinks we have everything to gain:

“We need to see differences on the streets or in other people neither as threats nor as sentimental invitations, rather as necessary visions. They are necessary for us to learn how to navigate life with balance, both individually and collectively.”

This would be a good New Year’s resolution actually, for myself and for others (if you’re the New Year’s resolution type): Get to know your neighbours this year. Cross that fence. See what happens.