Front porch revival: How social distancing shines ...

Front porch revival: How social distancing shines a light on our long-neglected public-private realm

Detroit photographer Andre Terrell McWilliams’ family portraits perfectly capture the oddities of pandemic life.

The Cole family participates in the front porch project

These days, quarantined Detroiters are finding ourselves drawn to the oft-neglected spaces between our private lives and the public realm. Yes, we’re talking about our front porches (and windows and sidewalks). 

They serve as our portals to the world, spaces where we can see and interact with our friends, neighbors, and communities, where screens are not necessary, where voices, music, art, and photography can transcend isolation and bring us together.

Our priorities are reflected in how we build and function in our homes. For decades, suburban housing developers abandoned the front porch, embracing an ethos of privacy and detachment. In his essay “From Porch to Patio,” Richard H. Thomas writes that in abandoning our porches, Americans have:

… lost part of [our] public nature, which is essential to strong attachments and a deep sense of belonging or a feeling of community.

Pope family participates in #frontporchproject photo shoot.

#frontporchproject portrait of the Pope family at their home in the University District neighborhood of Detroit. | Credit: Andre Terrell McWilliams

But in recent years, front porches have been making a comeback — they’ve been on the rise in new housing since at least 2011 — part of a larger trend driven by millennial homebuyers who seek out communal spaces as key amenities. Of course, Detroit’s extensive stock of historic homes with porches gives the city a leg-up. Here, front porches never went out of style.

Local projects like Detroiter Cornetta Lane’s Pedal to Porch Project and Ferndale’s Front Porch Fest emphasize the porch as a central space for community connection. 

And that resurgence has certainly had a boost during COVID-19. We saw it in Italy, with quarantined Italians singing and playing instruments from their balconies.  Front porch and front-of-house projects — from flashing porch lights at 6 p.m. to honor frontline workers to porch concerts to art and messages in windows and chalk on sidewalks — signify the lengths we’ll go to meet our need for real, non-digital human connection.

The Cole family participates in the front porch project.
The Cole family poses with masks and Clorox wipes in front of their home in Farmington Hills. | Credit: Andre Terrell McWilliams

The #frontporchproject portrait photography concept has gained steam in communities across the country, and independent photographers have seized on the pandemic to document American life at a historic moment.  

Andre Terrell McWilliams, a photographer based in northwest Detroit, is one of them.

McWiillams also owns the digital marketing firm StreetVision.com and recently built the app Streetpass, which promotes local businesses that offer discounts to users. But with so many shops shut down, he wanted to find a way to keep working and keep people engaged.

So, he decided to put his photography skills to use to connect to area families and the small businesses that cater to them by starting his own local #frontporchproject. In exchange for supporting the app project while he’s retooling — a suggested donation is $50 — McWilliams will hold portrait sessions with families on their porches (and lawns) in and around Detroit. From a safe social distance, of course.

Some portraits feature families in their Sunday best while others don homemade facemasks, posing with Clorox wipes and hand sanitizer. One photoshoot featured Mickey Mouse and sparklers, in lieu of the Disneyland trip the family had planned to take for their daughter’s birthday.  

Benjamin family participating in the front porch project
The Benjamin Family stands together in front of their home in Redford. | Credit: Andre Terrell McWilliams

“We’ve had engaging conversations on how they’re coping, and maintaining their kids,” McWilliams told Detour. “And how to do things when we open back up.”

McWilliams is hoping to record audio interviews over the phone with the families and eventually host a photo exhibit where people can view the photos and listen to families’ stories.

You can view #theporchproject photos at McWilliams’ website and contact him to schedule a porch shoot of your own. 

Top photo: The Smith family participates in the #frontporchproject at their home in Detroit’s Sherwood Forest neighborhood.| Credit: Andre Terrell McWilliams

Nina Misuraca Ignaczak is a metro Detroit freelance journalist and publisher of the Planet Detroit Newsletter.