Sunday, July 14, 2013

Third Places in the City of Five Seasons?

Ray Oldenburg's book, The Great Good Place (Paragon House), was published in 1989. Much of its social commentary has dated, but its central message not only endures, it seems to have inspired a movement.

Oldenburg argued than that America was suffering from the loss of casual gathering places, such as the neighborhood taverns, corner stores, soda fountains and coffee shops that had been been a key part of American life prior to World War II, and are still found in much of Western Europe. He coined the phrase third place, referring to the "great variety of public places that host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work" (p. 16). Personal benefits of third places (ch. 3) include an accessible set of friends, spiritual uplift, an improved and broader perspective on humanity, and the opportunity for novelty. Social benefits (ch. 4) include a forum for free association, gentle social control, "fun with the lid kept on," and modulated political discussion. Do folks even know how to do that anymore?

Such places have disappeared with the urban neighborhoods that supported them, as Americans live farther from work, work longer hours and organize their children's lives to a fault, and as commercial establishments emphasize profit and fast service. In newer areas they're often prohibited by zoning ordinances that tightly segregate residential and commercial uses. The loss of third places, Oldenburg goes on, has led to higher levels of individual stress including heretofore-unheard-of childhood depression, crime, marital stress and divorce, and the loss of public/community life that engages and sustains us. Don't even start him on the Internet--because this book was published in 1989, he has more to say about shopping malls than online gaming or social media. But it's not hard to imagine him including them in his diagnosis.

Oldenburg's book has a definite "what's-wrong-with-America-today" feel to it, but he concludes on a hopeful note. It's vaguely hopeful, but it's hopeful. He is sure that our need to associate is fundamental, and that it will eventually win out over the forces that isolate us. He quotes approvingly from Patrick Goldring's The Broilerhouse Society (New York: Heybright and Talley, 1969, p. 216):
I believe the human instinct towards real community and dignity will survive any processing and will assert itself in a crisis. Sooner or later there will be a check in the seemingly inexorable movement towards ant-like humanity, organizing for organizing's sake.
Tangible signs of hope emerged by 2001, when Oldenburg published his follow-up volume, Celebrating the Third Place (Marlowe & Co.). After a brief introduction, he presents first-person experiences of 19 third places, nearly all of them local businesses. They include taverns, coffeehouses, and restaurants, as well as a garden store, a gym and a photo shop. Many of the accounts are written by the entrepreneurs themselves, who describe how they self-consciously aimed to create community gathering places as well as profit-making establishments.

Just being a coffeehouse or a bar doesn't make you a third place. Oldenburg's introduction cites examples of establishments that claim to be third places but are not: a chain of "neighborhood" restaurants that are found in congested strips, a "friendly diner" that's anything but, a chain of coffeehouses that "are high volume, fast turnover operations" where "Seating is uncomfortable by design and customers in line are treated rudely when uncertain of their orders" (p. 3).

What makes a third place thirdy? Not all the establishments in the book share all of these characteristics, but ideally they are (my list): local, easily accessible from home, preferably on foot; comfortable, where you could drop in by yourself and feel welcome; relaxed, meaning you can stay as long as you wish, spending some but not a huge amount of money; and possessing a steady clientele, so that when you drop in you're sure to encounter people you know. The combination results in spontaneous social encounters, which in turn bring the benefits to individual and society listed above. Oldenburg adds "The best places are locally owned, independent, small-scale, steady-state business..." (p. 4). This addresses my question from an earlier post--Are local businesses really better than franchises?--by saying third places traditionally drew most of their business from a three-block radius, which would generate too little income for a chain to flourish. That's not all the story, I'm sure, but it's a start.

The third places profiled in Celebrating the Third Place may have established some beachheads, but they face a lot of obstacles. Oldenburg notes that governments all over America have for decades practiced unifunctional zoning, which means most residential areas don't have commercial establishments anywhere nearby. Where do the third places go? They have trouble competing for price with incorporated chains. In most areas, people spend the time between work and home commuting from one to the other, leaving them with no "community time." And however much we might crave community, it's hard to break the 70 years' habit of staying at home, especially when our homes are bigger, farther from the third places, and possess prodigious home entertainments systems, fitness centers and bars.

Cedar Rapids is the City of Five Seasons, because our size obviates the typical urban commute. Even so, I don't know if there's a lot of third place behavior here. There are certainly opportunities: the coffeehouses around town are friendly and outside of downtown Cedar Rapids seem oriented to long-term occupancy. (To be honest, I spent a lot of time in downtown coffee shops during my sabbatical, and even there never once felt hassled or hustled.) Some of them, like Wit's (formerly Witte's) End and Tatyana's, close at 2 p.m., which rules them out as third places for working people. I don't spend much time in bars, but have found two that seem oriented to neighborhood third place behavior. At our old house we used to walk to the nearby Tic-Toc (600 17th St NE), which welcomes children and has good beer on tap. The waiter got to know our orders, or at least Jane's, because she always got Blue Moon, and I could never make up my mind. Of course I was bringing my own company. The last few months I've attended a jam session at Little Bohemia (1317 3rd St SE), in a hardy 19th century building with a friendly host and a local beer (Roller Dam Red) I've never found anywhere else. It has at least the potential to be a neighborhood hangout once New Bohemia gets established. [Here is a video tribute to Little Bohemia after it was wiped out by the 2008 flood. It reopened in 2010.] Coincidentally, or perhaps not coincidentally, Tic-Toc, Little Bohemia and Brewed Awakenings Coffeehouse are all accessible by pedestrians directly from the sidewalk, without having to cross a parking lot.

Another obstacle to the success of third places that Oldenburg doesn't consider is whether after 70 years out of practice we still know how to behave in them. I know I don't. Whenever I go out for coffee by myself, I always bring work to do. Last week at Brewed Awakenings I saw a colleague and a former student, both sitting by themselves. I greeted them both, but then settled in with The Cambridge Companion to Early Greek Philosophy. I assumed they were busy as well, and if I did decide to cast the early Greeks to the winds either of my acquaintances would find my joining their table an intrusion. If third places are going to do their stuff, we need to come with the expectation of spontaneous meeting and the anticipation others will welcome our company.

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