Greater Heights

Southside neighborhood Woodland Heights takes porch concerts to the next level.

Soon the lush streets of Woodland Heights will come alive with the sounds of strings, beats, horns and songs this summer. Meet the Tiny Porch concert series, which brings neighbors out for what organizer Emily McMillen describes as “magical.” The once best-kept musical secret had its cover blown; it’s one of the most engaging musical events in RVA.

What started as a grassroots venture has blossomed into a spectacular, highly anticipated event. When the world shut down during the pandemic, two Woodland Heights neighbors had an idea to stitch things together in the community. McMillen leaned in and goodness ensued.

“We’re all in our houses. We said, ‘Let’s build community and redefine what gathering looks like. Let’s build on our love for the neighborhood. Let’s do porch concerts,” says McMillen, adding that it was organic at the time. “Everything was just shared via social media and word of mouth.”

Curious neighbors passed the word around, not knowing what to expect other than fun Sunday hangs with family, pets, and friends. The deal was sealed after the first successful series.

“I just remember dancing in the streets, seeing new people coming out,” recalls McMillen.

But it’s only sometimes good in said ‘hood. There was some pushback at the start, given social distancing was still new, so it went cold.

“In March of 2023, we got back together, had an in-person meeting, and started to think about what this would look like,” McMillen continues. “The core was local musicians, not necessarily professional musicians, but a way for folks to jam.”

Equally crucial to the music is enjoying each other. “Over the past few years, we’ve invested in our mission: What do we want to do? It’s not just the music.  It’s a time when neighbors get out and walk the streets, talk, see people they haven’t seen in years or a new neighbor.”

In a short time, a planning team assembled and the event had real party legs. It’s since become robust. “Forty-four neighbors signed up to do the no-glamor-and-glory part,” she says. Basement meetings on rainy nights were packed to the brim. Folks embraced the “You are not just here for the fun; you are here to build Woodland Heights,” she says.

Today, residents emerge from their homes with coolers, lawn chairs, strollers and assemble at various locations nearby. There’s usually a food truck on hand for eats. Neighbors are over the moon. It’s become a highly organized, transparent, open-to-feedback event that adjusts as needed. “We listened,” says McMillen.

Food trucks and a genuinely safe, communal space are the vibe.

“This year and last we were super intentional about representation on both sides of Semmes. We are one neighborhood despite being separated by a major barrier,” says McMillen. “We cluster to avoid too much back and forth over Semmes.” The reward? “Someone said to me, I’ve never walked down this street before,” she adds.

Longtime 29th St. dweller Mary Landrum fondly remembers last year’s events.

“I brought my dad on a golf cart to enjoy the music for Father’s Day and he loved it. He said it was the most interesting Father’s Day he’d ever had,” says Landrum. “It’s a great way to see neighbors and friends while building a strong community.” Another local has similar feelings. Charlotte Hinson says: “Familiar faces, great music. It gives me a great sense of community.”

According to McMillen, there’s a waiting list for both host porches and bands who want to play. One thing is certain: Tiny Porch keeps it in the neighborhood.

“We talked with the folks at Porchella [a similar fest that legit blew up like, whoa]. One of the leads said, ‘Think about what you want to be and have your team write that down. Is it a city event or for the neighborhood?’ We stuck with our mission statement.  We have three porches max,” says McMillen.

Also on the list of imperatives is pedestrian and cyclist safety, given that the roads are not shut down during the event. “We work with host porches to ensure there aren’t things like fence line barriers. It has to feel inclusive. That’s another sense of community,” says McMillen.

What folks might be surprised to know is that this is 100% neighbor-driven. “We don’t have a budget. It’s 100% neighbor supported and donation base,” she adds.

This year Studio Two Three cranked out 200 shirts pro bono. River Copper Works ensured equitable access to sound, no matter the level of the artist, by providing solid sound equipment, and Chesapeake Bank donated the yard signs.

“We keep evolving based on what neighbors say. We continue to connect with folks who have been in their homes for say, 30-plus years, and make sure we are respectful,” says McMillen. “Come out and see a far corner of the neighborhood. You’ll get to see the Goose House in July. It’s all fascinating. It’s magical.”

And keep an eye out for those tip buckets, folks. Tip the players.

The Tiny Porch concert series kicks off on June 16. Free. Check out porch host deets and show schedules; check out their website at tinyporchconcerts.org

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