Thursday, March 02, 2006

More About The Third Place

I appreciate all the comments on the notion of "the third place," an expression coined by Ray Oldenburg. We're talking about it here:

Kim asks, if there was a third place, would we know what to do there?

It's a legitimate question: do we know how to sit around and strike up conversations with strangers anymore -- strangers who might hold diametrically opposed political views, religious views, and notions of what is Right and Good? Are you capable of going into a comfortable community tavern where the Fox News is on the television set, and not making an instant character assessment of all the people in the bar?
I'm not, which is why I don't ever, ever go to the local tavern across the street from my own church, which I suspect is very much a "third place" in my town. Shame on me! It's across the street, it's safe, it's a little bit seedy but not overly much, and I could probably easily go over every day with a book and have a Diet Coke, hang out on a stool at the bar and see who shows up.
Of course I'd probably get a reputation as the minister who hangs out at "that bar," but I'd probably also get a really good sense of what's going on in town.

I notice with pleasure that the new Panera Bread nearby is becoming a third place for kids -- if I go for a late lunch there's invariably a big table of high school kids giggling and hacking around, and no one hassles them a bit. They buy a cup of soup or a hot chocolate and they've got a hang-out for as long as they want it. I'm glad to see it, and some of the kids are beginning to be familiar. We strike up a little conversation sometimes.

Oldenburg says that third places are places where people can go and become regulars and carry on the kind of stress-relieving conversations that are somewhere between vulgar and prosaic but not required to be deep or productive. While a third place can promote very high-brow political conversation (think a cafe in Prague during the Revolution), it is more likely to be be Homer Simpson and his buddies throwing back some brew at Moe's and just shooting the breeze. Or, as Chalice Chick points out, a group of guys playing cards in the back of a store every week (a PERFECT third place). The point is that the third place is unsterile, uncommercial, ungeared to sell you something, and becomes a gathering place that allows a sense of community to form between highly unlikely people.

Why can't our churches be a "third place?" What do you think?


Blogger Eric Posa said...

Small towns in Texas have easily recognizable third places--they're called Dairy Queens. Seriously, Larry McMurtry once wrote, "before the Dairy Queens appeared the people of the small towns had no place to meet and talk; and so they didn't meet or talk." In the small town near Fort Worth where I grew up in the late 70s and 80s, the Dairy Queen was the town hang-out. Stressed-out moms with rambuncteous young children, chatty teenagers avoiding homework for the afternoon, and old men swapping war stories would sit in booths next to each other and spend hours on a chocolate shake or root beer float, or quickly down a DQ sandwich before it melted...but nurse a Dr. Pepper until supper time. Time moved differently in the Dairy Queen--when we were there, we were just there, and the rest of the world was merely fodder material for sharing stories.

Churches won't work, because time follows a clock in churches. Your church might have a monthly community dinner that can be a third place on the third Saturday of each month from 6:00 to 8:30 PM, but that time constraint feels counter to the concept of a third place as I understand it. A large church's parish hall or rec center might work, if it's open a lot of hours to people in the community. Or, if the church has an accessible outdoor area, that could turn into a good location for a casual third place. But inside the church building, You're there at a certain time for a certain purpose, and while social interaction may also happen for a short period that resembles a third place, it ain't the same.

Blogger PeaceBang said...

Eric reminds me that Dunkin Donuts has become a third place in many little MA towns. I've seen groups of men hanging out in them for hours, drinking coffee and talking.


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