Des and the Swagmatics

Up On The Porch

ArtsRule chose to examine the 2021 Asbury Park PorchFest, and look at the way a grassroots event can galvanize the musical arts, neighborhoods, outdoor activities and a sense of belonging. We asked organizer, Jordan Modell, how does a volunteer event like Porch Fest benefit the city?   “Although only 5 years ago when we started, Asbury was very much a city in transition.  Most people and certainly no tourists ever ventured to the ‘west side’.”

Jordan Modell (right), PorchFest Organizer

“Our goal was to showcase all of Asbury Park not just the beach.  In fact, 75% of our Porches are on the ‘west side’.   Porchfest is the only Asbury Park event that features the whole city.   And by keeping it Free it allows all residents to enjoy.“ When asked to comment on how a free event benefits the city’s well-being, Modell said, “There are plenty of events like Sea Hear Now that focus on money. We chose to focus on the spirit of the city.  To heal the east west divide.  To relax after the summer tourists are gone.  In fact we usually raise over $10.000 and 100% of it goes to make life more fun in Asbury Park.   We have used it to give local kids musical scholarships – to plant public gardens where there were none – to paint murals that stay all year round – and to give scholarships to local kids to attend the college or vocational school of their choice.”

Since all of the monies are given away each year, Modell, who is the head of the Asbury Park Homeowner’s Association, says that the seed money to kick off the event each year starts there, with support for the event.

In the 5 years that the event has been happening, last year’s was perhaps the most profound.  According to Tom Kulesa, a local resident who worked from home instead of NYC all last year, “It was one of the few events in 2020 that allowed people to come out of their burrows and hear live music, it was refreshing and exhilarating.”

This year, the numbers of attendees, are expected to skyrocket because of the weather and the availability of vaccinations, making people more confident in crowds outside.

Modell said that the numbers continue increasing, “We had 40 artists and maybe 800 people year one and now police estimated over 5,000 and close to 120 artists this year.”

And participation by homeowners has also grown, using their porches and front lawns or businesses as temporary performance spaces. “We started with 10 (porches) and now have 23,” said Modell.

Crowds at PorchFest 2021
Broadway on the Porch

Local actor Jill Powell relocated to Asbury Park right before the pandemic lockdown and chose the city because of its unique attributes.  “My wife and I were looking for a community that supported our lifestyle, had grit, diversity and a love of music.  Being the proud mother of a Trans child and knowing others who are as well, I found AP gave me the place where I could be my authentic self, get involved and grow old.”  Her porch and connections to talent brought the Broadway musicals to her location.  Singers who had not worked in front of a live audience for some time said that they would help her.  The attending crowds closed down her street all afternoon and the audiences responded by singing along with standards and jumping up spontaneously for standing ovations.

When questioned about why he continues to run this event, Modell was thoughtful, “I am simply amazed at how many people from across the shore stop me and tell me how much Porchfest means to them.   And working with music impresarios like Dave Vargo inspire me.  Dave not only runs a successful financial firm – tours at least 100 nights a year and writes his own music but finds time – a lot of time to book all our artists.”

Dave Vargo, while introducing performers, running sound, selling T-shirts and performing himself, gave the musician’s point of view, “There are so many talented people who enjoy coming to Asbury Park to perform, and they see it as a way to give back, they may not have a lot of money but they have a generosity of spirit.” 

When Vargo was asked if he thinks this kind of event continues Asbury Park’s legacy of music, he said, “Definitely, bringing live music to the public in the daytime increases the artist’s listening public, I know I’ve found followers who had seen me here performing on a porch.”  And he knows of attendees now “coming in from Europe to follow the event, those who have come before for the Light of Day weekend of music are now coming here again.”

Dave Vargo

Working to find the talent has been easier as Asbury Park and AP Porch Fest already have established a reputation, Vargo said.  The level of performance has been improving, so much so that there are now more who want to perform than hours in the day. Other cities are starting to have their own Porch Fests popping up, lists 161 cities hosting them currently across America.  It takes a lot of coordination but with continued interest and a dedicated core of volunteers behind the scenes, Modell thinks that he “would love for us to attract more acts of color and involve the Southwest even more,” that there is room to grow.

“We begin (planning) in March and run at breakneck speed for the final 4 weeks ending in October.  I thought it would be one and done but here we are in year 5 and looking forward to our 10th. “

The many methods of attending AP PorchFest

The fact that this event is decentralized and takes place in the neighborhoods, with homes and businesses involved, walking is encouraged; bikes, wagons, scooters, skateboards are everywhere; relationships are seen being re-established, the pace of life slows, and it truly is a participatory event.  Being outdoors on a sunny October day helps everyone enjoy nature and conversations spring up organically about the performances, what’s next and there is hope in the air.

The art is integrated, not superimposed, and at least, for one afternoon, music is the catalyst that underscores the community in an arts-centric city.

If you missed this one, come experience Asbury Park Porch Fest in 2022, you will enjoy the music, the porches and the sense of place.

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written and edited by Nancy Sabino and Mike Sodano