Tactical culture: Porchfest

A festival with minimal organization and almost no budget has helped to put our neighborhood on the map.

  • Fall Creek Bluegrass Partners

    Fall Creek Bluegrass Partners

    Our fourth Porchfest appearance. From left, Rob Steuteville, John Marohn, Jeff Lovell, Sally Lamb McCune, Robin Steuteville, Phil Robinson, Mark Eginton

Robert Steuteville, New Urban Network

NOTE: Scroll down for a very nice video.

Last Sunday, thousands of people wandered the streets of my neighborhood in Ithaca, New York, to see and hear 97 musical acts on porches, stoops, and front yards throughout a perfect afternoon.

This ad-hoc event, largely self-organizing, has grown into a big thing — drawing visitors from around the region. When they come, they see the best of the 40-block Fall Creek neighborhood and part of adjacent Northside.

This is the place where everybody brings their kids to trick-or-treat in October. In September, now, it has become tradition that musicians from throughout the county come to play. Everybody is on foot or bicycle — so there's not a lot of traffic. The few cars creep along  slowly. No amount of traffic calming could accomplish what Porchfest can do once a year.

The crowd sees kids mixing with senior citizens, families, and young adults, a whole lot of community bonding, and musicians playing where they live or at a house of a friend. There are too many acts to see. Plus, you always get caught en route listening to somebody you never planned to hear. So most people end up just wandering about.

Some of the acts are unscheduled. One of my highlights this year was sitting on my porch in the early afternoon, studying the map and watching the world go by, when a hurdy-gurdy lady requested to use our porch. She was very skilled — a good thing because this instrument is loud — and she drew a decent crowd while her friends pulled out a picnic of wine and assorted muffins. Later I played with a bluegrass band on a friend's porch (see photo).

Porchfest began in 2007 when Fall Creekers Lesley Greene and Gretchen Hildreth got the idea that musicians from the neighborhood should play on their porches on one particular Sunday. They recruited 20 or 30 acts, printed a map with times and addresses and descriptions, and Porchfest was born.

Such a simple idea — and it has grown every year. Greene and Hildreth email a call for musical acts and locations. The pair organizes the groups into three time slots so that they don't bump into each other. Almost everything else is up to the residents and musicians — who hold practices, provide their own sound, and organize house parties. Churches and businesses open their restrooms.

Porchfest is beginning to spread to other cities and towns, from Napa, California, to Somerville, Massachusetts. The only requirement is a walkable neighborhood and some home-grown musical or other talent. It's a great way to build culture and community and show off these assets to the world.

There's some nice photos here, a link to the website, and below is a short, well-put-together video of the 2011 event. What's not to like?