Placemaking Perfection: Porchfest
Updated: Oct 13
By Charlie McCabe
One of the annual events that continues to expand in a very organic way is PorchFest. To summarize it simply, it's the pairing of the owners of porches with local musicians for a few hours on a given day, once a year. Founded by instrument playing neighbors in Ithaca, NY in 2007, it has grown in cities and towns primarily in the northeast United States since then. According to the Porchfest.org website, there are currently 170 annual Porchfest events. The most well-known in the Boston area (where I live) are in Somerville and Jamaica Plain, but there are many others in Arlington, Belmont, Melrose, Lexington, Brookline, Roslindale, and more.
Porchfest at its heart is a temporary (one-day) event that breaks lots of local rules, like noise ordinances, blocking streets to motor vehicle traffic, (and impeding motor vehicles in general), public consumption of alcoholic beverages and in general, a independent pop-up event that is free, entirely organized by volunteers, and enjoyed by a wide range of people. It's kind of amazing that it actually works, given the logistics required to make it happen, and despite that the fact that bad weather often forces many scheduled porchfests to fall back on their rain dates.
Ithaca, New York provided the model that most other events follow. One person wrote software for a website that allowed owners of porches (and driveways, front yards and really any level piece of land with easy access to power) to serve as stages. The porch owners that made times available on that website for musicians to sign up and play for a prescribed time. The website served up the list of performers, times, and locations and people decided where to go. Porch hosts put out lawn chairs on the sidewalk and along the edge of streets, provide sidewalk chalk and games for kids, and maybe even some refreshments.
Somehow, it all works. People walk, ride bikes or drive to a particular neighborhood where several porches hosted musicians and listen to a song or two and move onto the next porch. Or they linger longer than they thought that they might.
The definition of a porch or stage continued to evolve - with parks, plazas, and squares serving as performance spaces. (Given that parks and public spaces have always spaces for performance, its a little annoying - speaking as a parks professional and one who has organized hundreds of events, many involving music) that the process to do so is more cumbersome than it should be.
Case in point. Finally, after many years of trying, the Boston Parks & Recreation Department approved a new outdoor stage and beer garden sponsored by Emerson College's alternative radio station, WERS. Dubbed the uncommon stage, it features local bands and artists. You can get a great beer, sit with friends and enjoy the music. It isn't open late or everyday, but from June through November, its showing that this type of event with a wide range of music performers works and works well.
In my little city of Melrose (6 miles north of downtown Boston), Porchfest was delayed a week due to the rainfall that has been all too common during many warm season weekends this year (not complaining, its better than last year's drought and hotter temperatures!) Still, while we weren't hosting on our own driveway (our porch, alas, can only fit one or two people) this year, my wife's two bands were playing at the new Lexington MA porchfest at two locations. I walked around Melrose and took some of the photos from performances shown on this post. I can't wait until next year when we can host again.
Porchfest will continue to grow, the founder of Belmont MA porchfest, Mary Bradley, just made an 18 minute video on the history of Porchfest, titled A Porchfest Journey, it premiered a film festival in Arlington MA. Porchfest.info, provides low-cost software/web hosting for those that are looking for an easier way to create their own Porchfest.
We need more porchfests, it a great way to build community, discover the many hidden talents of your neighbors and friends, and enliven your front porch (or driveway or front yard).
Copyright 2023, Charlie McCabe Consulting, LLC. Link to all articles in this series.