Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Porches and the Vocabulary of Liminal Spaces

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Porches and the Vocabulary of Liminal Spaces

Article excerpt

Good fences make good neighbors, Robert Frost wrote. On a family visit to South Carolina late last month, I was reminded that good porches make good neighbors, too.

On a perfect spring evening, warm and uncharacteristically unsticky, it occurred to us that the perfect place to adjourn to after dinner was not the living room, but the front porch of the grandparents' renovated gingerbread Victorian. And so we went out to sit and rock and swing and chat and keep an eye on the passing scene. It was a connection with the neighborhood we wouldn't have made had we stayed inside or gone out into the backyard.

A porch is an example of what sociologists, artists, and other students of human behavior call a "liminal space" - a transitional space, in this case, between the private space of the home and the public space of the street. A table at a sidewalk cafe has a similar dual identity. So, on a larger scale, does an airport: Once there, one has left home but not yet really embarked on one's trip.

A porch may conjure up notions of comfortable sociability and relaxation, but the word is cousin to "port" - as in harbor, as in gate; as in door; as in porter, in the sense of gatekeeper. "Portal" is another member of this family, a fancy Latin-derived term that has found new life in the age of the Internet. Not long ago it usually referred to a grand and imposing entrance to a building. Nowadays it's more often a website positioning itself as an entrance to other sites on the Internet. Note how the "gatekeeper" function lives on in cyberspace.

Another relative, in a more distant branch of the family, is "portcullis," the heavy metal (in the original sense of that phrase) grate that can be let down to close off the entrance of a medieval castle. Porches may be about opening up; a portcullis is definitely about closing down.

The porch of the old South has a conceptual relative in the big cities of the Northeast: the stoop. …

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