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Porches swing their way through East Hillside culture

DCN Correspondent

The porch provides a place to sit. The porch has a role in the community. The porch is tradition.

Nearly every home in the East Hillside, one of Duluth’s oldest residential districts, features a front porch. Its tradition of informal existence has provided a stage where neighbors can gather together anytime to eat, drink, relax, and enjoy each other’s company.

Kevin Erickson, a home owner on the East Hillside, sat on his porch where he could see what’s going on in the street. “Hey, nice shoes,? he called out to a neighbor who walked by his house wearing two different shoes.

“We use our porch all the time--everyone in the house, friends, neighbors,? Erickson said.

Erickson sat in a chair on his porch smoking a cigarette in the company of his pomapoo, a dog no bigger than a football. Surrounding him was a swing, more chairs, and a small fence, designed not to keep neighbors away but to keep his dog from running into the street.

From the scratches on the floorboards of Erickson’s porch one could gather that it has been used. “(The porch is) a little warped,? he said. “It’s used a lot.? When the time comes, Erickson plans to restore his porch.

Like his porch, Erickson’s house looks aged. It was built in 1905 and its entire structure, including the porch, has stood through a history of rehabilitation initiatives in the East Hillside.

So, why do almost all of the houses in the East Hillside have porches?

“They’re old,? Frank Jurasek, a homeowner in the East Hillside said, smiling as he looked up and down the street at his neighbors’ homes.

Employment by lumbering, shipping, and mining industries grew Duluth’s population from 5,000 in 1880 to 100,000 in 1920. During that time, 70 percent of Duluth houses were built. Many of the job seekers settled on the Hillside, making it one of Duluth’s oldest residential districts. Home builders in the small lots of the East Hillside, most just 25 by 140 feet, attempted to maximize space by building multi-floored homes with extended front porches.

“I don’t like houses without porches. That's why I buy old houses,? Frank Jurasek said.

Jurasek lives on East Fourth Street in a home built in 1908. He has lived there for 30 years. In 1966 Jurasek and his wife, Razalia came to the United States from Yugoslavia to be closer to Razalia’s family. They’ve resided in two different houses since they moved to the United States, both in the East Hillside and both with porches.

Jurasek keeps his porch up by using it to display pots of pink, yellow and red geraniums.

Although such décor is not required for the porch culture in the East Hillside, a report on housing and redevelopment for the city Planning Commission from 1957 set standards for porch’s structure. The report read that “every inside and outside… porch… shall be so constructed as to be safe to use and capable of supporting the load that normal use may cause.?

Normal use, according to Bob Norstrom, a homeowner in the East Hillside, means socializing. “You socialize on the porch and you barbeque in the back,? Norstrom said. He would know; Norstrom has lived in the duplex that he owns on East 5th Street since 1953, before this ordinance even existed.

Another piece of Duluth history suggests that some homes in the East Hillside needed to be rehabilitated in order to provide safe living conditions. The 1970 Neighborhood Development Program (NDP) was initiated by the Housing and Redevelopment Authority of Duluth to carry out this function. The rehabilitation was to be in accordance with neighborhood needs. Thus, the NDP specifically stated that it would “recognize structural features which could contribute to its (a home’s) individuality, such as porches…?

Not all East Hillsiders recall this particular initiative or the houses involved in rehabilitation projects allocated by NDP. However, Norstrom remembered his experiences with some of the blighted times on the East Hillside.

Years ago “some kids started some tires under the porch on fire,? Norstrom said. “They burned the front of the house off.?

After the incident Norstrom rebuilt the front of his home, constructing a new porch to replace the ashes of his old one. “Gotta have a porch,? he said.

To revamp the structure he built a sitting area smaller than the original porch and added room for garden storage underneath it.

In an effort to preserve tradition and culture, the city of Duluth’s Department of Planning and Development published “Old House/ New House -- A guide to Rehabilitating Duluth’s Old Homes.? Homeowners like Norstrom have implicitly and intuitively taken the advice of this guide as exemplified in this excerpt.

“Porches have become an important part of American life, and Duluth is no exception. To tear down the porch is to destroy a real part of the house.?