I Hosted a Community Porch Concert — And You Should Too
"People are really looking for opportunities to get together with their neighbors and have a community."
Music is a pretty big deal in Oak Park, IL. You see it through the weekly summer concerts in Scoville Park, or the undying support for its three indie record stores, or the marching band Longfellow Elementary School parents hire to parade the kids to school on the first day (yes, really). But this year, my family thought we'd bring our love for music a little closer to home. Really, about as close as you can get.
We volunteered to be one of the first hosts of a new Oak Park musical tradition: Porch Fest. The premise is pretty simple. It's a public concert where the band performs on the front porch of a local house. In our case, about 200 people showed up on our lawn and spilled into the street. The street was closed off by "borrowing" the orange barricade horses from the next block, which was having a block party the following day. In certain circles this would be referred to as guerrilla place-making.
An Ode to the Community-Building Power of the Porch
When the call for hosts went out on the Oak Park Facebook groups, we eagerly signed up — not knowing what we were getting ourselves into. There was a porch selection committee, who performed a site inspection to make sure our porch passed muster. I'm honestly not sure what they were looking for, but they had a clipboard, so it was totally official. Key benefits of our porch included: those Edison-y lightbulbs you get at Costco; well-trimmed bushes allowing for a clear view of the bands; two power outlets and a porch swing. A previously undiscovered selling point of our porch is that it has room for a drum set.
Oak Park weighs in at just over 50,000 residents. And while intimate porch concerts feel like a small-town idea, Oak Park's big-city neighbor, Chicago, has been hosting front porch concerts for five years now.
Cheryl Wisniewski organizes the Oak Park shows along with Tara Dull and Jason Baker. She had heard of the Chicago events and thought Oak Park deserved its own because, "We're cool. I mean, come on," she said. "People are really looking for opportunities to get together with their neighbors and have a community."
For our show, two local artists, Jim Haptonstahl and Kristin Jane, performed. Jim, joined by said drum kit, played mostly original folk tunes and Kristin accompanied herself on guitar and keyboards as she performed classic rock covers. Jim also did a pre-show porch inspection. He brought four guitars and wanted to make sure we would have room for those, his drummer and the rest of his sound system. They were two of the 30 bands who signed up for the 10 performance slots. Porch Fest is a no-budget affair at the moment, so the bands play for tips.
"I don't know if a porch show is a scene," Wisniewski said, "but they want to be a part of it, in whatever way they can."
How to Love Where You Live: Be a Better Neighbor
Here's the weird thing about having our porch selected: it's like you're throwing a big party, but not really hosting it. We had pizza and drinks for the bands and volunteers but otherwise it just sort of happened in our yard. Since my wife and I both have roots in the concert business, we felt it appropriate to properly credential our kids with "All access" passes. That turned out to be a level of status they took to all too easily and perhaps wielded with a little heavy of a hand becoming de facto bouncers, determining who could and could not enter the backyard "green room."
Meanwhile, the house next door is for sale, so the owner decided to let people use his bathroom and turned the event into an impromptu open house, which the Porch Fest organizers streamed on Facebook as a thank you.
My kids spent the day baking for a bake sale/lemonade stand that raised money for Porch Fest and for the aforementioned First Day Band. A locally-owned ice cream truck also did a brisk business. And the crowd brought snacks, drinks, some cheese trays and lounged in bag chairs while the kids ran, biked and scootered in the closed-off street.
Overall it was a lovely evening for some music and a great excuse to hang out with old friends, make some new ones and dance a little.
If this sounds like a fun idea (and it does, right?) there is essentially nothing stopping you from starting one in your community.
As Wisniewski said about community porch concerts: "It's a thing now."
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