The event garners enthusiasm from many, while others say it disturbs the peace
(Somerville Wire) – After having pivoted last year to being a virtual “Couchfest,” this upcoming October 2, Porchfest will be returning to Somerville, showcasing the city’s musical talent. The event is not a festival, per se, but rather an event where guests can wander through the city’s neighborhoods to see local bands performing live on residents’ porches. A program of the Somerville Arts Council, music groups expressed their enthusiasm for the tradition, which has existed since 2011; however, some community members have been vocal about aspects of it that they have found to be disruptive.
“Porchfest came about [when] a woman in the community ultimately had gone to an Ithaca Porchfest, which was one of the first ones in the country,” said SAC Executive Director Greg Jenkins. “She came to me and said, have you heard about this? And I was like, no, but it sounds amazing. It’s different in that it’s sort of similar to an Open Studios, but it’s an Open Studios for musicians. She and I had an informational meeting with the community. We put something out, described it, and said, here’s an event that the SAC is willing to take on, and here’s how it could be structured, and are people interested? At the first meeting, we had maybe 40 people show up.” He added, “The real thing that I pushed for is a number of things that are true to the spirit of Porchfest. It is decentralized. We create a structure for it, pull the permit, and talk to the City and city councilors and police department … but at the same time, we are not getting caught in match making. … We are not curating; we are not choosing bands. The beauty of it is it’s about the music community and [them] sharing their wealth of music capacity …”
This year, bands will perform during the time slot assigned to their zone. Zones and time periods are west of Willow Avenue (between noon to 2 p.m.), the area between Willow Avenue and Central Street (2-4 p.m.), and the area east of Central Street (4-6 p.m.). There will be a map that allows audience members to find music performances that they want to see. The SAC recommends that performers discuss their desire to play with neighbors and landlords, and fully amplified performances are not suggested, although in the past, amplification has been used. Malcolm Pittman, a banjo player from the Incorrigible String Band, said that his fellow musicians will be masked when not singing and won’t be interacting much with audience members.
Some community members have given voice to problems that Porchfest has presented in past years. Daniel Kimmel, who used to live on Josephine Avenue, said that when neighbors played music, the noise sometimes became so loud that he felt that he had to leave home while the event was going on. While drinking in the streets is not allowed by law, Kimmel said that police would generally “look the other way” when Porchfest was happening. He added that while he personally had not experienced rowdy crowds, the day after Porchfest, the “street was a mess.” He also said that he had heard of issues where public urination on lawns would take place, during the day. Kimmel said one of his main objections is that Porchfest takes place in residential areas, not business districts.
“I lived for several years on Josephine Avenue, where a neighbor performed for an hour or two—I’m not claiming it was all day—but with amps. It was so loud, there was literally no place I could go in my apartment and not hear it. I could not escape it,” said Kimmel. “That’s my complaint.” After the first time he experienced Porchfest, Kimmel began leaving town for much of the day when the event rolled around. He added, “It’s rude. It’s like the noisy party, or somebody setting fireworks on your front lawn. It’s not that I object to people having fun or the entertainment, it’s forcing it onto other people against their will, where they’re given a choice of putting up with it or having to leave their own home.”
Reebee Garofalo is a snare drummer with the Second Line Social Aid and Pleasure Society Brass Band, a music group that specifically dedicates time towards performing at progressive demonstrations, linked to social justice issues. He has been performing at Porchfest for many years and enjoys the idea of a public cultural event. As for the volume issues, he said that the sound of music from the event is far less disruptive than other noises one might encounter when living in a city.
“What we’re involved in here is a kind of a contest over what kinds of sounds are allowable in public spaces,” said Garofalo. “I would say that whatever the shortcomings of Porchfest, it’s not as loud as sirens screaming down the street. It’s not as disruptive as police cars at midnight. It happens during the day. It’s over at six o’clock. I think it’s a very good use of public space. And I think we have lost sight of putting the public back in public space.”
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Shira Laucharoen is assistant director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and assistant editor and staff reporter of the Somerville Wire.