N.C. city attacks tradition to beautify front porches Ban on ,, the outdoor use of indoor furniture sought


WILSON, N.C. -- In this image-conscious tobacco and factory town of 40,000 less than an hour east of Raleigh, a homeowner's choice of porch furniture might soon be declared illegal.

In what many people here see as a clash of the classes and an assault on the amiable rhythms of Southern life, the city of Wilson is expected early this year to ban old sofas, recliners and other indoor furniture from porches and yards. Southern historians see the proposal as an attack on a regional tradition that predates Naugahyde.

For generations, some Southerners, unwilling to throw away a perfectly usable piece of furniture just because of a few rips or stains, have made room for new couches and chairs by dragging the old ones outside. Like some old dog that can no longer hunt, the yellow plaid loveseats and sagging Barcaloungers live out a few, last years on the porch.

Often, the people who carry on this tradition cannot afford wicker or other fancy outdoor "patio" furniture favored by the gentility.

"This must be the ultimate yuppification of the South, to ban porch furniture," said Dan Carter, professor of Southern history at Emory University in Atlanta.

While such a move might make a neighborhood more cosmetically presentable, removing such traditions could, he believes, help destroy one, by hampering the way people in a community interact.

As in most such confrontations between the classes, the poor are expected to lose.

"This is not junk," said Deborah Thompson, 33, pointing to her sofa. But the idea that the sight of it would offend anyone does not seem to anger her nearly so much as it puzzles her.

It is the same on Viola Street, where Elizabeth Best sat reading a book in her overstuffed chair, and on Oak Street, where Carlos Andrades stood near some old furniture watching his nephews play in the yard, and on Woodard Avenue, where William Riggins shared his porch with a crippled recliner. People here say they will comply with the ordinance if it passes -- no one wants to have to pay a fine over a 20-year-old La-Z-Boy -- but they see it as one more instance of the rich and powerful telling the powerless how to live their lives.

"They don't want to drive by it," 45-year-old Moses Scriven said as he tried to get a reluctant chain saw to crank over on Vance Street. "We don't have the power that the people with money have. It's aggravating, but there's nothing to be done about it.

"They've been trying to make Wilson a model community," Scriven said, even if that means "stopping us from enjoying what little bit we have. They can afford to buy something for their porches."

City officials in Wilson, including planning director Jim Bradshaw, have stressed that the porch furniture ordinance is just part of a series of new housing laws designed to improve quality of life, and deny that it is a battle between the classes.

"This is not one side telling the other what to do," said Bradshaw. "At least I don't see it that way."

The proposed ban on indoor furniture is "just another tool to bring about improvements to the neighborhood," he said, "whether it's an abandoned vehicle or indoor furniture all over the yard. They all attribute to the blight of the neighborhood."

Blacks and whites support the ordinance, he said, including some people who live in the neighborhoods -- mainly blacks and Hispanic migrant workers -- most affected by the proposal.

But lower-income residents, the ones with the indoor furniture on their porches, say the ordinance would not affect the upper-middle class, that wealthier blacks support the move but poorer ones just want to be left alone.

It all began last spring, when the Wilson Appearance Commission recommended that the indoor furniture, prone to get water-logged and moldy when rain blows in under the eaves, amounted to a public nuisance.

It was also suggested that the furniture represented a health hazard, giving rats and fleas a place to hide and breed.

Pub Date: 1/02/98

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