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Historic Athens Porch*fest: Strengthening a Sense of Place Through Performance and Preservation

Over the past decade, porchfests have sprung up across the country as a form of concert experience where musicians exchange clubs and bars for porches and yards. Beyond providing an entertaining opportunity to gather with neighbors and community members, porchfests often serve as a way of introducing musicians to new audiences by bringing performances directly to their front doors, so to speak. Though they are decidedly not aspiring to be the legendary late-night house parties that leave caved-in floors and noise-ordinance violations in their wake, these porchfests help reinvigorate the elements of eclecticism and charm that are so often at least partly responsible for initially attracting residents into historic neighborhoods full of stylish homes.

Adhering to the same safety precautions that have sent most surviving festivals to virtual platforms, Historic Athens Porch*fest—modified with an asterisk to indicate its online state—will proceed with an adapted approach. The term “porchfest” resonates with the activity of sheltering in place, after all, and takes on a double meaning as it becomes a festival that can be experienced from one’s own porch.  

“For 53 years our organization has been committed to celebrating the community heritage and history of Athens, GA,” says Tommy Valentine, executive director of the nonprofit Historic Athens. “Sometimes that means fighting to preserve historic neighborhoods, buildings, cemeteries, districts or other areas with a strong sense of place. Other times we feel a sense of responsibility for celebrating and conserving the culture and legacy of our city.”

Porch*fest bridges these two areas of focus by showcasing creative talent within a landscape of notable homes. With the support of Tweed Recording, Historic Athens launched its first official music festival last autumn with nearly 70 performances held across four adjacent neighborhoods: Newtown, Pulaski Heights, Boulevard and Buena Vista. Free and family-friendly, the sunlit performances felt both warmly intimate and surprisingly accessible, as hundreds of attendees were encouraged to stroll down the streets and follow the sound waves towards the next makeshift stage.

“As much as we would’ve loved to continue that celebration in person, we also felt a sense of duty to recalibrate and continue the event this year,” says Valentine. “For one, we saw a virtual Historic Athens Porch*fest as an opportunity to snapshot the 2020 music scene for future generations. Secondly, we know that it’s more important than ever that we celebrate and preserve the music scene that helps define our community heritage. Historic Athens Porch*fest will give us a chance to do both.”

For this alternative Porch*fest, musicians were given the choice to record their songs in advance or to perform live. While some are opting to stream from their own porches—as close an invitation into private home environments as you can reasonably hope for, given the circumstances—others will use historic destinations as the visual backdrops of their videos.

Elinor Saragoussi

“The COVID-19 pandemic has absolutely helped us sharpen our sense of duty and purpose,” says Valentine. “Since March, we’ve been working to document this history in real time so that future generations can clearly understand how Athens navigated this difficult era.”

Realizing how essential live music is to the fabric of local culture, Porch*fest attempts to maintain momentum during a particularly precarious time when social distancing throws a frustrating wrench into rehearsing and recording and traditional music venues still remain closed indefinitely. This dedication to identifying and archiving today’s cultural contributions carries over into other endeavors of Historic Athens, such as “This Moment in History: COVID-19 in Athens, Georgia,” a 55-episode interview series that launched in April. Archived through YouTube, the Hargrett Special Collections Library and ACC Library’s Heritage Room, the interviews collectively tell the story of a small town’s perseverance from the perspectives of entrepreneurs, elected officials and other community leaders. 

Despite experiencing the widespread challenges of fundraising and event-planning during a pandemic, Historic Athens has adapted to the times in order to continue its mission of local preservation and conservation. Within the past 18 months, the organization has successfully secured close to $5 million from SPLOST 2020 for preservation projects, established a new Preservation Pipeline to expedite the process of adding historic districts, expanded its Hands On Historic Athens initiative to provide repairs to historic homes and enhanced its public programming through annual events.

Last year, the nonprofit released a list of its first six “Athens Places in Peril,” an initiative that, modeled after the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation’s program of the same name, identifies endangered sites and partners to support grassroots conservation efforts. Later this month, Historic Athens will announce a new list of four-to-six properties that hold uncertain futures due to demolition by neglect or by unrestricted commercial development. This list will be anchored by the west-downtown Hot Corner area, which the mayor and commission will discuss designating as a local historic district during its Nov. 3 voting session.

During this year’s Historic Athens Porch*fest, a total of 44 acts will be livestreamed at the top of every hour Thursday, Oct. 15 through Sunday, Oct. 18 from 11 a.m.–9 p.m. each day. Details on how to directly tip performers or make a donation to a cause of their choosing will be provided. Visit historicathensporchfest.com to attend. 

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