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Placemaking Perfection: Porchfest

Updated: Jan 9

By Charlie McCabe


Porchfest is a grassroots type of event that is expanding in a very organic way. To summarize it simply, it's the pairing of private homes (with 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 quite a bit since then, primarily in the Northeast. 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. You can check out the evolution of Porchfest in this fun film short by my friend Mary Bradley.



At its heart, Porchfest is a temporary (one-day) event that breaks lots of local rules, like noise ordinances and blocking streets to motor vehicle traffic, (and impeding motor vehicles in general). It's an 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, provided sidewalk chalk and games for kids, and occasionally even offered refreshments.



Somehow, it all works. People walk, ride bikes, or drive to a particular neighborhood where several porches host musicians and listen to a song or two then move onto the next porch. Or they linger longer than they thought they might.



The definition of a porch or stage has continued to evolve—with parks, plazas, and squares serving as performance spaces. Often, the final big event of the day will be held at a public space in the center of town. As a parks professional and one who has organized hundreds of events in public spaces (many involving music), I've found the permitting process has always been more cumbersome than it should be. Outdoor music venues and events like Porchfest need flexibility to work, and it's given me hope to see towns and cities working to overcome their own restrictions to make it happen.


Case in point: Finally, this year, 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, hang out 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 can work well.




In my little city, seven 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). I walked around and took some of the photos from performances shown on this post. I can't wait until next year when we will host my wife's two bands at our own house again (some bandmates had logistical issues this year).



Porchfest will continue to grow. As mentioned earlier, the founder of the Belmont, MA, Porchfest, Mary Bradley, recently made an 18-minute video on the history of the event, A Porchfest Journey, which premiered at a film festival in Arlington, MA. Also, 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's 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.

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