I wrote much of the following in 2009, with the starting place of theologian Richard Beck’s series titled Alone, Suburban and Sorted, and have edited it for this series, five years later.
Parts 7 and 8 of Beck’s series focus on the idea of a ‘third place,’ drawing from Ray Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community (1991).
The ‘third place’ is an idea I’ve valued for many years. In 2004, I nominated a new coffee shop in my then-community for a Smart Growth award on the basis of its being a viable, dynamic third place. The coffee shop recently celebrated its 12th year in that town. It’s the place I met with most of my friends during the day, and where I also met many new acquaintances while hanging out there. And I overheard lots of interesting conversations! It enriched my life, and now that I am living in a community without such a great third place, my life is the poorer for it.
In Part 7 (“The Third Place”), Beck quotes Philip Slater, who says that
“a community life exists when one can go daily to a given location at a given time and see many of the people one knows.”
Exactly. I was so fortunate to have that in my former town. I had it at church, at that coffee shop (where I could go any time and usually see people I know), at the library, at pretty much any arts events in town, and just walking down the streets of the downtown area. In my current town, I suppose it’s the grocery store where I am most apt to see people I know, but there is not much conversation there, and it’s not really a third place, a place where you can hang out for free or for very little cost, for hours at a time. I don’t attend a church here, and I don’t often see people I know at the library other than the librarians. Now my social life takes place almost exclusively in private places, in friends’ homes, at weekly, monthly, bi-monthly meetings and at irregularly scheduled social events like dinners, campfires, cocktail parties, holiday parties, field trips. I’m not complaining, far from it, but they’re not true third places.
Beck speaks of the ‘problem of place’ that has arisen in American culture since WWII, with the ‘rise of the automotive suburb.’ I think there is profound insight in what Dolores Hayden, Yale professor and urban historian and poet, says:
“Americans have ‘substituted the vision of the ideal home for that of the ideal city.‘”
Yes. This was part of the tension I felt in looking for a new home when I moved here, and the tension I feel now as we think about where to retire: what geographic location, what community, what sort of dwelling and land. I spend a lot of time at home, so I want ‘home’ to be a good fit for me. But if I had to choose, I’d choose a better town over a better home. I’m not sure my spouse agrees. He’s not someone who is drawn to the suburbs per se but he does love his automobiles, and he likes to work on them at home, which requires a garage and some space for tools and such. He also really values privacy and quiet, which again points to a larger lot that’s removed from a downtown area. I value privacy, too, maybe as much as I value community, maybe not quite as much.
Beck notes (per Oldenburg) those communal places that we lose when we live in secluded suburbs: pedestrian-heavy sidewalks on Main Street; Main Street hangouts (barbershops, soda fountains, diners); the front porch (the back porch with a fenced in backyard predominates in suburbs, as it does in my current neighbourhood); corner stores; corner taverns and pubs; local parks.
“According to Oldenburg, the loss of these places has dramatically affected American community. Without places to mix, converse, and connect, American social life has grown thin. And it’s mainly a problem of place. We’ve lost the locations where social connections are made and maintained.”
We’ve become commuters who live in two places: work and home. What we need are more ‘third places’ where we can spend informal time without spending much (or any) money, mixing with people, and creating bridging relationships.
One might respond: but I don’t have time to do anything more than commute, work, commute, have dinner, spend an hour or two with the family, decompress a bit with a video or TV, and get errands done. Why, and when, would I go to a third place?
This question assumes either that social and community ties are not important, or that those relationships are adequately met at work and home. Oldenburg says that
“in the absence of an informal public life, people’s expectations toward work and family life have escalated beyond the capacity of those institutions to meet them. Domestic and work relationships are pressed to supply all that is wanting and much that is missing in the constricted life-styles of those without community. … The problem of place in America manifests itself in a sorely deficient informal public life. The structure of shared experience beyond what is offered by family, job, and passive consumerism is small and dwindling. The essential group experience is being replaced by the exaggerated self-consciousness of individuals.”
He argues that for life to be fulfilling, we need a tripod of experience: domestic; gainful and productive; “and inclusively sociable, offering both the basis of community and the celebration of it.” Many of us experience only a bipod.
A news article in the 22 March 2009 Washington Post — “In Va. , Vision of Suburbia at a Crossroads” — looks at a plan in Virginia to do away with suburban cul-de-sacs, partly from an accessibility and safety standpoint — they’re dead-ends for emergency equipment; heavy traffic clogs the feeder roads each day during commuting hours — and partly from a money-saving standpoint — less road maintenance and less need to widen over-burdened feeder roads.
It’s interesting that a vision of a more fulfilling life isn’t mentioned. And autos are still seen as the center of life. No one suggests series of pedestrian paths to connect people with the stores, schools, parks, etc., rather than taking the car.
When I was a kid, one of our houses was on a cul-de-sac. I shudder to think how long it would have taken me to walk to the little shopping plaza I frequented regularly -– with its ‘third place’ drugstore and soda fountain — if I had had to walk only along the roads. We all (all of us kids and teens) just cut a path through other people’s yards to connect to the roads behind our cul-de-sac, shaving at least a mile off the walk/drive.
Of course, there is much opposition to banning cul-de-sacs, because they have fewer traffic accidents than through roads. And, homeowners says they choose them specifically because “they offer … a sense of community.”
Andrés Duany, an architect and ‘new urbanism’ proponent, says that
creating developments “designed to limit cut-through traffic, has made homeowners more afraid of outsiders coming through their development, because the few roads that do connect are often … ‘traffic sewers’ filled with speeding commuters. … ‘The cul-de-sac compensates for roads that are so over-designed that people speed on them,’ Duany said. ‘So instead of dealing with the heart of the problem, they created a Band-Aid, a cul-de-sac.’
This article at Vox — “How our housing choices make adult friendships more difficult” by David Roberts (Oct 2015) — and the studies it cites, come at this a bit differently: Adults need “proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other” to make friends. That describes a third place in a community.
Part 8 of the series (“Where Everybody Knows Your Name”) gives more detail about third places:
- Neutral territory – no one is host, no one is guest.
- Inclusive; no membership, no status
- Conversation is essential, though there may be other activities
- It’s accessible and accommodating, in place and time.
- There is a core group of regulars.
- It’s come-as-you-are.
- The mood is playful.
- It’s a home-away-from-home.
For those keeping score, worship generally doesn’t fulfill many of these criteria. Even my former loose-in-style church was not inclusive (there are members, though they are of a diverse array of statuses, and there are non-members), and conversation is definitely not part of the main show. It also felt sort of (not completely) hosted, by the minister, musicians, and worship team. And it didn’t feel like a home away from home. Not like the coffee shop did. Or running into other people walking on the downtown streets and chatting for 10 minutes at a time.
Where I live now, meeting in friends’ houses weekly or monthly, most of the criteria listed above for a third place are met. Technically there is a host but that’s not how it feels, as most of these events are potluck and we all take turns leading. At my weekly permaculture group meeting, I know where most everyone’s trash cans and compost holders are, how to use their tea pots, what drawer holds their serving spoons. The only box not checked is inclusivity, as the group is not completely open to new members, though it has grown and morphed slowly over the last five years or so.
I think for me, opportunity for meaningful conversation is key, and that is very much part of my social experience here through most of my groups; yet as much as they satisfy me, they don’t fulfill the need for third places in our community, for places where one can drop in almost any time and find a home, an opportunity to converse with others in a light-hearted, non-competitive, open manner about topics of true interest. I think some older people find this at the local council on aging, and probably at the college gym, but those aren’t venues for me. I’m still looking for that coffee shop, that informal daily drop-in group or place that welcomes my voluntary participation, that can serve as my third place in this town. And I’m looking for it in any town we think about moving to.
More on Third Places:
My Jan. 2012 blog posting about Café Crème as a third place; it’s the coffee shop in Bath, Maine, that I miss every day
What Is A Third Place and Why Do You Need One, by Johnny Dzubak at The Art of Charm, 8 April 2015. Written for men, explaining what’s so important about the third place. “They don’t have set agendas. It’s not a meeting, but a coming together. … People come as they are, when they want, and leave just as easily. A third place is always neutral ground — no one has any obligation to be there. … The third place is fun, playful and light. Even when denizens discuss ‘serious’ topics like politics or religion, there’s an air of levity to things. … Because at the end of the day, the third place is supposed to be fun.”
Seattle Times article (Oct. 2004): Conversation starters: “Third places” provide havens for diverse discussion
Thanks for checking in. Be sure to see what the other 31 Dayers are writing about.
This project is a bit like Wallace Stevens’ poem Thirteen Ways of Looking At A Blackbird, in that I’m writing about a sense of place from vantage points that may not obviously connect with each other. I’m not going to attempt to tie them together. In the end, these 31 days of looking at a sense of place may overlap, contradict, form a whole, or collapse like a flan in a cupboard, as Eddie Izzard would say. That remains to be seen. Thanks for stopping by.