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Porchfest Wants You to Meet Your Neighbors 

Wednesday, May 6 2015

Our bustling city can be isolating at times. We live next door to neighbors we never meet, ride crowded BART trains hoping to avoid eye contact with fellow passengers, and tend to draw lines in the sand among different groups of San Francisco residents. One music festival, organized by a dermatologist and a non-profit executive assistant who met at Burning Man seven years ago, is trying to change all of that — if only for one night.

SF Porchfest is an event that empowers Mission District residents, businesses, and venues to turn their porches into full-blown concert halls Saturday, May 9. The 20 porches, all within a mile of each other, will feature more than 40 bands of almost every genre of music (and even a dancer or two) — all for free.

The festival organizers, Elisabeth Pittinos and Beth Gould, don't have any notable experience in the music industry. But after hearing stories from their friend Marie Ghitman, who co-produces a Porchfest in Boston, the two couldn't resist launching their own festival in San Francisco. And the two amateurs have done well on a shoestring budget, drawing on support from friends to create a sleek website, and getting San Francisco supervisors David Campos and Scott Wiener to secure a fee waiver for the amplified music permit.

"I've spoken with Sgt. [Robert] Kaprosch, of the SFPD's Mission District station, and he was super nice and very supportive and told us a few guidelines, like no selling alcohol, which we're not doing. So he didn't really have any issue with it," Gould said of the potential threat of police shutting down music coming out of residential buildings.

The first official Porchfest was in Ithaca, N.Y., in 2007. Since then the movement has spread across North America. Nearby Napa and Gilroy already have their own Porchfests, and the bilingual city across our northern border, Montreal, hosts an event called Porchfest/Balconfête. But this is the first one in San Francisco, according to Pittinos and Gould — and it's about more than just music.

"In a city like San Francisco, you can go years without meeting people who live down the block from you. And lately there is a lot of polarization in our community: between long-term residents and new arrivals, between renters and owners, between people from different economic backgrounds," Pittinos said. "Porchfest is a day to feel good about our city and our neighbors, to celebrate the creativity and diversity of the city we all love. It's a day to talk with people you don't yet know. We believe Porchfest can bring people together in a new way, and can be a catalyst for community-building."

The two women and their nimble infrastructure of volunteers and friends seem to have the same thing on their minds: community building. The free event doesn't have the budget of huge festivals such as Outside Lands, so anything that costs more than a few hundred dollars gets axed from the plan. All the porches, staff, and musical entertainment have been offered with the goal of bringing a neighborhood together through music.

"There's always been some degree of polarization in San Francisco. I've lived here for 21 years and seen it. But it seems to be ramping up," Gould said. "Whether that's true or that's just the media, I don't know, but I personally know people who are being evicted. We're not politicians or saying we know how to fix this complicated problem, but basically we want to see less polarization and more of people just getting together and seeing things from other viewpoints, and music is always a good way to do that."

As is the case for many promoters and artists hoping to organize shows in the city, the festival's venues (read: porches) were the hardest for the women to secure. There were too many artists and not enough porches. According to Pittinos, potential porch volunteers were worried about getting sued or receiving noise complaints. The organizers were able to find some suitable porches, but also expanded to include traditional music venues and various businesses.

"We now have some of the neighborhood music venues such as the The Vestry, Revolution Café, and the Red Poppy added in the mix as well as other businesses like Pig and Pie and Jump Start Coffee," Pittinos said.

Peter Baldwin has lived in San Francisco with his family since 1996. He works as an adviser to several startups, and has kids who attend elementary school with Gould's. The week before the event Baldwin was busy "people-proofing" his backyard (he took down a trampoline for safety reasons) and preparing to open his home to music fans.

"The rewards outweigh the risks," Baldwin said. "It's pretty exciting, actually. I wonder who will turn up?"

The Baldwins put the word out about the party to their neighbors, inviting everyone to come. It's a policy the family has for all parties. "It's a community event, so we're hoping to get to meet people we haven't seen before in the community," he says.

A friend of the family, who plays in the bluegrass band Nobody From Nashville, will be one of the musicians turning the Baldwin house into a music venue for the evening. But it's not just a friends-and-family affair, Baldwin says; the festival has the possibility of helping a larger issue the city is facing.

"There's friction between my trade — the Silicon Valley trade — and between people who have lived here a long time," said Baldwin, a fan of the city's larger music events such as Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. "Anything that can help people communicate better is good thing."


About The Author

Matt Saincome

Matt Saincome

Matt Saincome is SF Weekly's former music editor.


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