Man in Ann Arbor house
Priya Ganji/Daily


It is summer, evening, and I am on my house’s front porch in Ann Arbor. The birds call and glide through the telephone wires that dissect the darkening sky into polygons of sunset. Up there, not much has changed in the past few months: the sunset happens later, but its effect always remains. Closer to the ground, it’s more apparent that we are in July: eruptions of treetops that replace the shadows of high rises, roof shingles warming in the sun, unkempt wildflowers flaring at the bases of street signs, determinate crabgrass finding niches between sidewalk squares. 

It’s apparent in the ground, too: what once was snow-covered, or brown, or prickly, or mud, is now more frequently lush grass, stately shrubs or curated garden beds. And more frequently now there are people enjoying these spaces — tending to them or tanning in them. Summer means the space around a house has become more important than the space in it, and that the backyard, in addition to being underfoot, is also at the top of the mind.

My mother implanted the importance of the backyard early on when our family moved from Brooklyn to western Michigan when I was in elementary school. The backyard — “one-third of an acre!” — was advertised heavily, and maternal propaganda almost made the concept of gaining one seem worth it as we abandoned the big city. As toddlers in New York, we had no idea what an “acre” was, and were just beginning to understand the concept of “one-third.” We hoped these words would mean something as magnificent as the dream being articulated in my mother’s mouth. 

Today, as I sit here on my college porch, I do miss the large yard of my youth. My home in Ann Arbor is belted on three sides by gravel driveways, the fourth side featuring our front door and steps leading down to the sidewalk and the road. In one corner of the property exists a chicken coop, home to four hens. In another corner is a fenced-in garbage bin corral, necessary for managing the waste of 20 students. The front of the property is mostly home to unruly wildflowers, yet to be mowed by the City of Ann Arbor. To the left is a vegetable garden, and to the right are milkweed and sunflowers, their focal point too heavy for their own good. 

Around me, though, each house has used its slice of space differently. I see a traditional grassy lawn with a double-wide driveway, I turn my head to find a front porch bordered by conifer bushes. A lawn chair in a sitting area protected by a knee-high iron fence. Two tracts of concrete cut across a side yard, serving as a driveway extension. These amenities are compressed into tiny lots like a postage stamp, but these small spaces in turn have great importance. What do our yards say about us, and what do we have to say about them?

***

The covered cobblestone porch at Nakamura Cooperative House was a welcome sight to see after biking through a late-afternoon downpour. I soggily walked the path through the front yard and up the stairs to meet Robin Wyllie-Sholz, a sophomore at Washtenaw Community College. 

“(The porch) is definitely a big draw for me, it’s one of my favorite things about this space,” he aid at the beginning of our conversation while sitting on sofas under the roof.

Gathering on the front porch at Nakamura co-op. Photo courtesy of Robin Wyllie-Sholz.

Gathering on the front porch at Nakamura co-op. Photo courtesy of Robin Wyllie-Sholz.

Many of Ann Arbor’s co-ops are known for their large porches, a space Wyllie-Sholz appreciates: “It’s a nice way to like the outside without having to be doing an activity that has to do with outside.” Even during the incessant rainfall, several other residents congregated on the outdoor furniture, talking to each other and typing on laptops. 

“You can just be reading or something, and it’s nice in that it’s private because it’s part of your house, but it’s also kind of public in that you’re seeing people go by,” says Wyllie-Sholz. 

The density of the urban landscape near downtown Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan’s campuses inevitably means that private property can become a quasi-public stage, where the rest of the world interacts with one’s personal outdoors, even if just in the form of subtle glances.

Sammy Cole, a recent LSA graduate and former editor for The Michigan Daily, experienced an amplified version of this subtle pressure to perform while developing a habit of sitting with housemates on the roof of their East University Avenue home.

“We were the girls who sat on that roof,” Cole remembered. “We had these across-the-street neighbors and we would wave to them, and it became kind of a monument, or landmark, of my college career … It was a space with a memory of everything we did there.”

At Wyllie-Sholz’s co-op, people are included in Nakamura’s outdoor space, on purpose, for bi-weekly open mic nights. “In the back, it’s paved throughout, like a parking lot, but we do have open mics there so we move the cars and the trash,” Wyllie-Sholz said. 

As the campus yard sits in a space between the traditional binary of private and public, new versatility can be unlocked, and storage space for cars can be turned into sitting space for hundreds, just as Cole’s yard became an impromptu beverage cafe. 

Just as easily, though, lush green space can become prime real estate for many residents’ personal vehicles. When storage space and green space are both in a squeeze, it’s often automotive possessions that take priority — as was the case at Cole’s campus home. 

“There were too many cars to park at my last house and we would always pull up on the grass because we really didn’t care,” Cole admitted.

The rulers of the road have invaded the backyard at Nakamura co-op as well, to the dismay of Wyllie-Sholz. “(I) wish there were less parking lots and cars and stuff, and everything was plants, but like I (still) feel like I have options,” he remarked, referring to other nearby outdoor spaces downtown and on campus.

Given the public-facing nature of these spaces, scrutiny from others can find itself on the front lawn just as often as a housemate’s sedan. 

“We were always worried we were going to get fined because of the Ann Arbor policy,” Cole said of her house’s parking habit. Ann Arbor currently prohibits parking vehicles in non-designated areas like front yards, with exceptions for events like home football games.

The city’s regulations governing private outdoor spaces extended to furniture on their porch as well, with Cole saying “We couldn’t have (brought out) furniture (because of) the law that says what kind of furniture you can have (outside),” specifically referring to the 2010 ban on indoor furniture being kept outdoors, including spaces attached to the house. 

Most of the time, however, the freedom of the outdoors was more empowering than not, and in escaping the tight quarters of a college house, liberation was found. Cole summed it up simply: “It just felt like we could do whatever we wanted.” 

Without the constraints of doors and walls, agency thrives, conversation and connections flow, making the campus yard a valuable accessory for the undergraduate socialite.

Recent LSA graduate Joe Negen lamented his loss of lively porches and open space in exchange for his current solitary perch on a South Campus fire escape. 

“(During my) junior year, there (were) two houses right next to each other on the same lot,” Negen said. “There (were) five of us in my house and six of my best friends in the house right next door. We had two porches and the backlot space. That was epic … The space that I (am) in this year, it’s just a fire escape, and there’s no lawn or anything to speak of, there (isn’t) really a place to host things.”

Despite the loss in entertaining space, Negen has still found a way to make the scarce outdoor area he does have his own, 30 feet above the ground.

“(There’s) a window I can open up and hang out there … and I’ve got my camp chair that I sit on sometimes.”

This sense of control over these outdoor spaces, despite their frequent lack of privacy and expanse, seems to be important to many living in near-campus neighborhoods. Indeya Lawrence, an LSA senior living near Kerrytown, has modified her apartment-style co-op’s yard to make it more accessible for others and herself. 

The backyard at Indeya Lawrence’s apartment-style co-op residence, with the firepit near the center. Photo courtesy of Indeya Lawrence.

“I brought firewood and helped contribute to the firepit area, that was my big contribution,” says Lawrence. “I also bring sanitizing wipes … I have allergies and having a little less allergens (in the outdoor space) is allergen-friendly.” 

LSA junior Simrun Bose took a more concrete approach to personalize the outdoor space at her co-op, with the help of her housemates. She added some fresh color with a new coat of paint on the picnic table, now located out in front of the house. 

“(The) picnic table out front is nice because you can people-watch a bit in the afternoon,” Bose said. “And I think I even took some classes out there because we had an extension cord then that went (to the picnic table) if I needed to charge anything.”

This public-facing space recently added another private amenity: a homemade bike shelter, detached from the house so it can be moved around at a whim. Bose reaffirmed others’ comments about the increased agency that comes with having one’s own residential space outside, whether it’s collective or for the individual. 

“In terms of cleanliness or like a small project, you can pretty much do what you want, which is nice,” Bose said. “I think because less people are probably using the outdoor space, there’s less (points of contention).”

While talking in Bose’s backyard, we sat at another wooden picnic table, with a grandiose sandstone outdoor fireplace and related chimney casting afternoon shadows over the chain link fence, and into the elementary schoolyard on the other side. As a warm breeze shook the tree branches overhead, I had to ask about the metaphorical elephant in this outdoor metaphorical room.

Bose could sense that I was curious: “And then, obviously, there’s the swing,” she said.

The swing in Simrun Bose’s backyard. Photo Credit: Oscar Nollette-Patulski 

The word “swing” is doing a remarkable amount of heavy lifting in the above sentence. The attraction is composed of the quintessential gray-blue dorm chair, suspended a few feet over a retaining wall by three black ropes tied at the two front corners and the backrest, all hanging down from an overhead tree branch. Despite this triple-tier support system, the seat had an ominous tilt to it, crossing the eeriness of an amusement park ride with the supposed comfort of domesticity.

Bose told me that she had tried the swing before, and continued on to a different topic without further elaboration. And although the thought didn’t strike me then, when I was just feet away from this remarkable contraption of potential fun and injury, I’m kicking myself for not taking the opportunity to try this makeshift ride. Especially now, as I sit writing this paragraph on my comparatively stable front porch, the summer sun still setting.  

I know I cannot simply barge into another’s backyard just because I’m jealous of its remarkable amenity, and I know I cannot invade its precarious privacy even though the only thing preserving it is a see-through, chain-link fence. But why can’t I have it all? Is the ideal campus yard a dream forever unfulfilled?

I look around at the petite garden beds tenaciously alive during sweltering humidity and the overgrown wildflowers dancing between the street and the sidewalk, all in front of my porch. Despite my tendency to want better, I know in the end I’ll be fine. 

In front of me, I still have my own outdoors to make home. 

Statement Correspondent Oscar Nollette-Patulski can be reached at noletteo@umich.edu.