Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The Third Place

I've been reading this wonderful book by Ray Oldenburg, The Great Good Place:

Have any of you ever read it?

I'm sorry I don't feel well enough to write much about it, but it's main premise is that we don't have "third places" anymore in society, places that people can congregate in a relaxed atmosphere with no pressure to buy anything, to engage in stress-reducing conversation and to create impromptu community.

Since I often find myself pacing around at home wishing for such a place (Barnes & Noble? well yea, but no one strikes up a conversation. The local lunch counter? Well yea, but the locals are all construction worker type guys and it would be very weird for me to suddenly try to participate. The gym? No, too utilitarian and everyone's sweating too much to exchange more than a friendly grunt -- although sadly, the gym comes closest). Oldenburg's theory is that modern urban planning has worked so assiduously to get the kids and old folks off the stoops and out of the doorways and off the streets, urban and suburban America has become very sterile and has no more remaining informal public gathering places.

I think this book would preach, big time. It clarified for me why I crave time in Europe, where every city has dozens of "third places" for me to slip into and join the human race. Here, if I don't make plans with friends, my options for getting out of the house are either inherently solitary or consumeristic: go for a walk, go shopping, go to a movie, go to the library, get a massage or for some kind of beauty treatment.

That's why I used to like karaoke when I lived in Maryland, it was a "third place" that sprang up several nights a week that brought together a totally disparate crowd in the easy camaraderie of singing together, sharing a few beers, and engaging in a harmless, inexpensive communal activity unaffected by educational levels or economic status.

The book is four-star recommended.


Blogger Jaume said...

Sometimes I had this feeling in America, that you can't (or you're not advised or encouraged to) walk on the streets. That the urban sprawl is like a series of islands connected by roads. Sometimes I did get the feeling that I could leisurely walk around and actually meet people on the streets, as I usually do in Barcelona. E.g. in downtown Boulder, Colorado. And in Toronto (in summertime). And San Francisco is the closest I have seen to an European city in America. Unfortunately I was one day only and couldn't enjoy much, but I liked the place.

Blogger Kim said...

and if we opened the kind of cafe where you could do this, would anyone come? Would they know what to do with themselves?
Why can't our churches be places like that?

Blogger Chalicechick said...

Judging by what I've read on the subject, it's very close to impossible to run something like that profitably.

The CSO has a "night out with the guys" every week where he goes to play cards. It is odd how weird a concept that seems these days. He and his friends play cards and talk about guy stuff in the back of a store that sells those model wargames old military guys buy.


Blogger boyinthebands said...

I think a big problem with churches -- apart from rural churches, with is another phenomemon -- is precisely that they are expected to fill a civic role they can't manage, the suburbs can't fill, and the cities have largely been designed out of.

Blogger PeaceBang said...

Yes, the Slate article CC references is perfect as a definition of what a third place ISN'T. It can't be a charming money-making venture. It has to be a modest joint where pretention isn't allowed to flourish, and where the owner would never say something like, "Don't get me started on people with laptops." a good third place doesn't care how long you stay, that's why we need tons of them. Of course this can never happen in America as it does in Europe because we discourage pedestrianism, we discourage casual outdoor conversation among groups (now considered "loitering"), our restaurants, cafes and bars are all about turning over tables (and the intimate pubs either blare the television or stereo so loud you can't carry on a conversation).

I've thought about whether or not churches can be a "third place" and have determined for myself that they can't -- they're too imbued with value expectations and cultural baggage. As for the number of churches that call their once-a-month folk concerts "coffee houses," that's always made my teeth itch. It's a contrived setting, it's a bunch of folding chairs and tables in a parish hall, it's a concert with a set beginning and ending time. It's NOT a coffeehouse, people.

Honestly, only when I'm out of this country do I feel I can just go and take up a chair somewhere and not be given the evil eye if I stay longer than is absolutely necessary. In America, this only happens if the place is totally empty, like during the day.

Blogger Joel Monka said...

Wow... I feel sorry for all you folks. We have third places all around Indianapolis and Indiana. The Soldiers and Sailors monument- the center circle of "The Circle City"- in the heart of downtown, where people sit and enjoy a break in the middle of the business day... Holcomb Gardens in Butler University, full of flowers, statuary, benches, and the tow path along the old canal into our hippy village, Broad Ripple... Broad Ripple itself... city parks that whole families still use, where a guy can take his sling chair and easel and paint a not so still life or two... the City Market downtown... and every neighborhood has, if you just ask around, a local business that can be used as such, as CC mentioned. Perhaps Europe is better at this than we- the only European countries I've spent any time in are England, Ireland, and France- but I didn't see anything better than we have here in central Indiana just for lounging with friends.

Blogger Chalicechick said...

My take was that this guy really wanted to start a space like that and found he couldn't afford to keep it afloat. I found myself imaginging the gradual shift in his attitude.

How he goes from thinking of it as a dinner party to growling at the people with laptops is indeed striking.

I wonder how the coffee shops in europe stay open.

Fwiw, if your town has any used bookstores, i've done some of my best hanging out in them.


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