Chicago apartment buildings have fire escapes in the back, the story goes, because after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 the new city fire code stipulated that every apartment have at least two means of escape. The alley system allowed plenty of room for solid staircases in the back of the buildings instead of rickety metal structures in the front, as in New York. But those back stairways were meant to be used as entryways only! They were to be kept clear of stuff, and they were definitely not a space for loitering.
Clearly the authors of the fire code had no grasp of human nature. It probably didn’t take more than one warm and sunny afternoon for those late-19th-century Chicagoans to discover how pleasant it is to linger on the back landing chatting with the neighbors, maybe while eating ice cream or drinking a beer. Or that a back stairwell is a convenient spot for growing things, or hanging laundry, or smoking, or even sleeping, because living in an unair-conditioned brick building sometimes isn’t that much different from living in a pizza oven. Thus, the Chicago porch.
(And what’s more Chicago than a fire escape made of wood because it’s cheap? WBEZ’s Curious City investigated and learned that it takes longer for the pressed wood generally used in porches to burn than the fire department to arrive. So it’s all good! And, hey, you’ve still got those front stairs.)
The shittiest apartment can be redeemed by a back porch. I once lived in a miserable third-floor studio that in summer was approximately 20 degrees hotter than outside. The porch added an extra 100 square feet of semifresh, cool air. Best of all, I shared that porch with a neighbor whom I probably would’ve liked anyway, since we found the same things ridiculous, but porch co-stewardship made it easy to have the sort of long, late-night conversations that cement friendships. She remains one of my dearest friends still.
I’ve lived in apartments in other cities with other forms of semiprivate outdoor space. The stoop had no shade, and Jehovah’s Witnesses would occasionally interrupt my breakfast to proselytize. The balcony was badly positioned for chatting with neighbors. The backyard fenced me in. The roof deck was glamorous but inconvenient, so nobody used it. The front porch was fine, but it lacked the excitement of being above ground level. I yearned for a good Chicago porch.
The last apartment I lived in had a walled-in porch, which was handy for extra storage, but not much else. I was merely on a waving basis with the neighbors. The evening I moved into my present apartment—chosen, in part, for its big and beautiful porch—I unfolded my camp chair, sat down, and felt a profound sense of well-being. As it grew dark, I smelled grill smoke and heard the quiet chatter from nearby porches and an occasional yell from the kid downstairs. People stopped by to introduce themselves. It felt like being in a little village. Or—I realized in shock—like being back in the suburb where I grew up, where the backyards all ran together and everyone hung out together at night, the grown-ups talking, the kids catching fireflies and showing off their sad attempts at cartwheels.
I mostly hated growing up in the suburbs, but I remember enjoying those summer nights. It felt like everyone out there wasn’t comparing or judging the way they usually did, but looking out for each other. Instead of dividing up our space, we were sharing it. v