Porchfest showcases art and community
This sixth annual Porchfest took place in Ithaca on September 16. It just keeps getting bigger and better — a remarkable testiment to community and arts.This year there were 112 acts in four time slots — compared to 97 acts last year. The first year, 2007, there were 20-something acts in one time slot.
The basic idea is that everybody performs on a porch, stoop, or front yard in a walkable neighborhood. In all of the articles that I have read, walkability is rarely mentioned — but it is absolutely essential. The only way for this event to be successful is that people get around on foot or on bicycle. Of course, if you have lots of good porches — another essential element — the chances are the place is walkable.
The performers organize their own acts. The event managers assign time slots so that acts are spread out and don't interfere with each other accoustically. Also, many musicians are playing with two or three bands and they can't be in more than one place at one time. A map is printed of who is playing when and where. The audience walks around with maps and chooses who they want to listen to.
This event is an amazing way to build community and support the arts. But for Porchfest, I never see so many happy people walking around a neighborhood, talking to and meeting neighbors. All of the talent is home grown — which gives it a special quality. Most of the bands are amateurs — like mine, see videos below — although quite a few are professional or quasi-professional.
Since Ithaca started its porchfest in 2007, porchfests have popped up all across North America — including Boulder, Colorado, Napa, California, Larchmere, Ohio, Somerville, Massachusetts, Belleville, Ontario, and a new urban project called Westhaven in Franklin, Tennessee. Most or all were inspired by Ithaca.
Ithaca Porchfest was started by Gretchen Hildreth and Lesley Greene, residents of the Fall Creek neighborhood. It was inspired by friends practicing the ukelele. The first year was very informal, I would even say guerrilla, in its approach. I doubt there was any official sanction to the event, because I noted a few police officers with puzzled expressions. Almost no marketing was done, and no official bathroom facilities were provided.
Nevertheless, I estimated that perhaps 700 people showed up. Now there are many thousands of attendees — no one knows precisely how many, because they are spread out over an area that is probably three-quarters of a mile from edge to edge. As the event has grown, it has become more organized.
Now barriers are put up and some streets are blocked off. Churches and other public buildings have donated their bathroom facilities. T-shirts are sold ($10, that and lemonade are the only ways to spend money). All of the individual venues are provided with a hand-painted sign. But I must stress that this event still operates on little or no budget — i.e. a website is maintained and maps and T-shirts are printed. I didn't see any police all afternoon.
As far as I can tell, we have never had a serious problem with Porchfest in Ithaca, but noise and boisterous crowds can be an issue at this type of event if organizers are not careful. This story about noise was written about the Somerville Porchfest in 2012. In Ithaca, all performers this year pledged to not use a sound system or keep amplification to a minimum. This pledge is a simple check box in the computer signup system, and it seems to be effective. Nearly all instruments are accoustic. I have never heard a bad word about this event. Mutual respect seems to be the order of the day.
See two short videos below of our band, Fall Creek Bluegrass Partners. I'm the guy with the guitar. The porch belongs to our family. The band is not professional, although some of the members have paying gigs from time to time. See the crowd on our street, which was not, incidentally, blocked off. Pedestrians owned the street, yet the size of the overall venue — 40-plus city blocks — means that everything is relaxed and there is plenty of room to get around. That scene stretched across more than a city neighborhood.
The weather was perfect — as it has been for all six events. We have been lucky — but mid-September is a reliable time for good weather in Ithaca. If you start such an event in your town, consider a time of year with the least possibility of bad weather.
I will close with a word about the appeal of city neighborhoods. Walkability and appeciation for the arts are two of the primary factors attracting and connecting people to urban places. Porchfest unites these two factors, with the additional allure of old-fashioned community thrown in for good measure. Lots of good home-cooked food was prepared and more than a few beers were consumed. Our friends had a midday party called "Porkfest," and that captures the spirit of the event. Private gatherings were happening all day and into the night.
There's only one day a year when our neighborhood is like it was last Sunday, but it's impressive to many visitors that it can happen at all. I'll bet many go home with a desire to live in a neighborhood like this.
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