NEW YORK – The American front door is a place where the welcome mat offers friendly greetings, where affable neighbors knock or ring, where boxes brimming with possibility are delivered. It is where home meets a world full of potentially good things.
The American front door is a place where signs trumpet words of warning, where cameras monitor visitors in high definition, where intruders find an entry point. It is where only a hunk of wood or metal separates the innermost spaces of home from a world full of chaos.
Both conceptions are real. They can and do exist together — usually peacefully but sometimes, particularly of late, contentiously.
In a land where private property is venerated and “get off my lawn” has become a mantra of jokey crankiness, the American front door is the landscape’s most intimate and personal of borders, the place where the public sphere encounters private space — occasionally with disastrous results.
Ralph Yarl, 16, was shot April 13 at Andrew Lester's front door in Kansas City, Missouri. The 84-year-old man, without a word, opened fire at the teenager who stood outside the door of what he believed was the house where he was picking up his two younger brothers. Lester, who has pleaded not guilty, said he was terrified when he opened the door.
It was one of several recent shootings, many of which took place near that threshold — in a driveway, on a front lawn and, of course, right at a front door.
“There is so much division in American society, so much polarization, so much animosity and so much fear,” says Bill Yousman, an associate professor of media studies at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut. “The front door does in some ways embody all of that — as that last place that separates your internal domestic life with the life of the public.”
PRIORITIZING PRIVATE PROPERTY
The United States, more than many countries, has made private property a priority — a fetish, some would say.
And while American landowners often view all of their property as private, the front door — be it on a single-family home or an apartment unit — is that final boundary that controls access to the inner sanctum. It is the place to assess threats, but at the same time it retains the sensibility of a less coiled nation — one where traveling salesmen, cookie-selling Girl Scouts and local political canvassers can come amicably calling.
That decision — to welcome or rebuff — has only become more fraught in the past two decades as political polarization surges, racial tensions spike and “stand your ground” laws multiply. The stakes were exacerbated further by the height of the pandemic, a time of “no-contact" doorstep deliveries when even loved ones and friendly figures could bring potential doom.
“This is a space where we have to kind of choose whether we’re literally going to throw open the door or bar the door," says Nicole Rudolph, an associate professor at Adelphi University in Garden City, New York, who teaches a class called Domestic Politics: The Public Life of the Private Sphere.
“I think we want to show our better selves to the world much of the time, so we open the door — cautiously,” Rudolph says. "But we are also sensitive to the risk that opening the door entails.”
Consider the phrase “direct to your door," used these days in connection with everything from DoorDash and GrubHub deliveries to the ubiquitous blue trucks of Amazon. It implies convenience, speed and the ultimate 21st-century American consumer value — frictionlessness. Yet as any Amazon user who checks delivery status knows, many drivers are required to take — and post — photos of the delivery right at the front door to prove they left it there in case “ porch pirates ” strike.
Or dip into Nextdoor, the hyperlocal social network in which neighborhoods' residents exchange information. It is also a clearinghouse for people noticing what they consider suspicious activity around their front doors — some of which might not have been considered menacing a generation or two ago. A recent sampling: “Yesterday afternoon, someone pounded on my front door.” “I just had two people knocking on my door handing out pamphlets." “Just a heads up, we caught this guy on our ring camera last night.”
“We’ve made our homes prisons. Who are we keeping out? We’re keeping ourselves locked in. There’s so much focus on who’s coming to get you,” says Lori Brown, a professor of sociology, criminology and criminal justice at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina.
“Because we’re very object-oriented, everything is about protecting my car, my packages, my front door, my yard,” Brown says. “Everything is very private, and I need to keep you away from my stuff. And guns are the ultimate way to protect my stuff.”
At the same time, the messages from invisible sources already in our homes — the internet, gadgets like Alexa, streaming television — can encourage us to turn inward more than we did when only newspapers and telephones brought the outside world in. You can sit and watch TV news stations or doomscroll on your phone and become ever more convinced that peril — or “the other” — lies immediately outside.
If that wasn't already entrenched, the pandemic made it so at an entirely new level.
Zein Murib, a political scientist at Fordham University in New York, suggests that examining the front door as an American borderland might also mean “taking the border metaphor one step further” to the notion of borders writ large, and who is allowed to approach and cross them.
Stand-your-ground laws and the “castle doctrine," which says residents don't have to retreat when threatened in their homes, are based on the notion that “certain people have the right to occupy space while others don't," Murib says.
“Those who are perceived as not belonging in that space are targeted,” Murib says. “People are afforded rights based on how close they come to that standard.” And the front door, they say, can act as a concentrated litmus test for that decision.
Let's leave the final word on front doors to comedian Sebastian Maniscalco, who weighed in on the American front door a few years ago in a standup routine that, like so many, was about far more than laughs.
“Twenty years ago, the doorbell rang, that was a happy moment in your house. It was called ‘company’,” he said. “You can't stop by anybody's house anymore. If you do, you have to call from the driveway. You're like, 'I'm here — can I approach?'"
He was joking, and it was funny. But only because it wasn't.
Ted Anthony, director of new storytelling and newsroom innovation at The Associated Press, has been writing about American culture since 1990. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/anthonyted