City in Front, City in Back

It is easy to imagine that the streets of our neighborhoods, the sidewalks, the parkways (optimistically called tree lawns here), and our front porches could and should become more active and more suitable for sitting, standing to discuss the news of the day with neighbors, walking and strolling and biking. We have talked here often about how this City in Front could become much more truly alive.

Now it’s time to think about the City in Back as well: what its features are and how it could become a more attractive and appealing part of our urban life. Onward we go.

The City in Back, from the bridge.

My studio was once a sleeping porch, though thankfully it is now enclosed. Its 19th century conception owes its origins to another epidemic – tuberculosis. Conventional wisdom then was that sleeping in the fresh air, 365 days a year, had healthful and beneficial effects on a disease that once proved fatal to almost 15% of all Americans.

School #22

“Children at Lincoln School No. 22, on Zimbrich Street, have set up their cots on an open upstairs porch in December. Some of the children are spreading blankets on the cots. Some are already lying on their cots, wrapped in blankets. This exposure to cold, clean air is used as a health treatment for thin, pale children. The open classroom windows can be seen behind them.” It was 1919.

Today, in the midst of another epidemic, I have a panoramic view of the City in Back from the bridge of our little ship (no sleeping while on duty), and all is now quite cold and clad in snow. And odd as it may seem, it’s this other city that I want to spend a moment contemplating. Join me. This may take a while, so get comfy on your cots and in your blankets….

First there is the City in Front, the city we all know, the city of neighborhoods and homes: it’s a city of front porches (most of the time) and storefronts, the city of street corners and crosswalks and bus stops and speeding cars and overarching trees and fire hydrants and streetlights and sometimes strip shopping and crappy parking too close to the sidewalk. Like this:

Wilkins Street
Evangeline Street
East Avenue
North Winton

I have said this before, but it’s a real hallmark of the physical character of this place: Rochester has very few alleys. A few alleys, but you can count them on your digits: not many. And this means that the lots (most are 100 to 120 feet deep) have big backyards, usually filled with three things: trees and gardens, driveways and paving, and garages. And it is here, beyond the front porch, that we enter The City in Back.

Back there….

Back by that big tree

This other city is not in the public realm: it is in the private realm (though someday, as I have written previously, this could change). But from where I observe my surroundings here on the bridge, the City in Back is filled with all kinds of interesting and satisfying features. In fact, I have become a bit obsessed with this city within the city, and in five categories:

Large-scaled landscape elements. Big trees and their canopies: a contribution to greener neighborhoods.

Accessory buildings: garages, sheds and outbuildings, and their arrangement, space-making and history.

The inventive modifications observed at the rear of the main buildings: fire escapes, balconies, porches, and more.

Gardens, patios, decks, barbecues and water in pools or ponds.

Sustainability, solar cells, and an abundance of paving.

Here we go. First, trees. Back here the trees grow tall and big, and add substantially to the cityscape, though they are not on the streets. It’s almost like this second city is a kind of greenway woven through the urban fabric. In some neighborhoods, it is this greenness of the City in Back that dominates. Take a look.

Here the green of the street and the green of the City in Back are mostly balanced.
But here the green of the second city vastly outweighs the public realm.

This greenness of the private City in Back substantially contributes to the City in Front – the public realm – and the scale of the trees is usually sufficient to be legible from the front sidewalk (the biggest trees in our neighborhood are almost all in the second city). It’s true that many have been altered to avoid the power and communications poles and lines, but they still give a lot to the streetscape all over the first city.

And next are the main architectural features of the second city: garages, sheds and outbuildings. Here is where my obsession deepens. From our bridge, I can see my own grouping of small structures. Like this:

All of this construction is wholly circumstantial. The physical relationship between each structure, and among groups of structures, is purely residual: each garage or outbuilding was built without any thought for any structure on adjoining lots. Each outbuilding is there to solve a homeowner’s purely particular needs. We don’t know which homeowner in the sequence of owners, but one of them. It is this unplanned and incremental and ad hoc quality that makes it all so interesting.

In order to maximize the non-house area of the lot, and get accessory uses and outbuildings out of the way, we can expect that each garage will be pushed to the very rear of any lot. But we can’t rely on its orientation, its architecture, its relationship to its Mother Ship, or even its materials or color related to anything else nearby.

Yet in block after block we can see that groupings of these outbuildings form small villages, and if all barriers (fences) were removed, then sequences and hierarchies of spaces would suggest themselves, and certain structures might become destinations by virtue of position or scale or some other prominent feature.

And these accessory structures tell us other stories, since they were built at various moments across time. Our house was the first on this side of our block, and was constructed before the turn of the last century. Within 25 years or so, all of the houses on our street were present. But the garages in back are another story. Some are leaning and about fall over. Some are gone. Others are newer and replace who knows what (bigger? sturdier? more storage? wider opening for bigger vehicles?). Some have gables, some hipped roofs, some flat roofs. One of the garages behind us has a chimney.

What purpose did that chimney serve? A history lesson in outbuildings, there for a local docent when she or he leads tours of this second city….

A third notable feature of the City in Back centers on the rear facades of the main buildings – the houses. Here we find picture windows, greenhouses occasionally, lots and lots of satellite dishes, fire escapes for all the houses converted to apartments (many), and a few new balconies (even the rare balcony with a barbecue). While many homeowners across time have hesitated to alter the fronts of their buildings (thankfully), when we get in back, things can be a bit less constrained.

Fourth, and even more varied than the rear facades of the houses, the backyard gardens run the gamut from elaborate Edens to crabgrass and junk car graveyards (phew: no junkers out our windows, but in other backyards across our city). Maybe it’s just a place to store the boat and its trailer. Maybe there is a swimming pool for the kids. Sometimes there is a a firepit for family or social occasions, and almost always there are lots of different kinds of barbecues. Perhaps there is an elaborate garden with places for entertaining and admiring the second city. One of the true defining features of this second city is the array of diversity in backyard personalities.

And finally, the City in Back represents a host of opportunities for the future. From above, we see that solar cells are more plentiful than you might think, but not yet ubiquitous (though they should be). Impervious paving is everywhere – even in the most restrained examples – and it is paving that soon can be ripped out, once we don’t own cars anymore. A few backyards have outbuildings converted to some use other than cars: offices, a few alternative dwelling units, workshops. But these alternatives beg for a next chapter for the City in Back, when all the small and interesting villages can get connected to one another and come alive as real urban places forming real urban fabric.

I have just had the pleasure of reading Jan Gehl’s lovely “Life Between Buildings: Using Public Space.” The book was first written in the 1970s, but updated by Gehl in 2006, and republished by Island Press in 2011. Gehl is known as a primary and outspoken advocate of the Shared Space movement, where streets in cities are reclaimed from automobility and made available, safe, and welcoming for all. His chapter headings seem like just the thing for me to think about as I consider the City in Back: places to assemble, to walk, to stay, to stand and talk. Even now, in this cold midwinter, a new kind of place continues to invite our attention.

2 thoughts on “City in Front, City in Back

  1. This series of drawings and paintings is so lovely…almost filmic…I hope there will be a “seasonal update”…also I just keep wondering if there is a fireplace under that garage chimney?

  2. Wow – thanks! Since I don’t seem to be able to resist drawing these vistas, a seasonal update seems inevitable. As for the chimney – when the weather breaks I am visiting that place for sure. There are little ones who play outside of the garage, and it is very often open, so that is where I will head once this crumby weather lets up.

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