Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Third Places

I've been thinking a lot these days about "third places," the term coined by Ray Oldenburg. His concept is that home is the first place, and work is the second, and the "third place" is the community gathering location - whatever that might be.

He says these are essential to a democracy, a community, because they give people from different walks of life a place to gather where they're all on a level playing field. I see some beauty in this concept. And I do believe it to be true in some ways, but I fear in our modern society we no longer know how to make the actual contact once we're in this place.

I was thinking about third places with regard to my own life and contemplating which ones I have. I do have some.

I go to certain restaurants often enough that there are other regulars there now that I say hello to, even though we've never had a real conversation. It's friendly and it gives you a feeling of community. However, I've never even had a real conversation with them, much less anything more meaningful. We have no real relationship and to pretend otherwise is foolish.

This is where I think the concept of third places falls apart in our modern world where, as best I can tell, we grow socially more inept by the moment. I agree they're part of what forms a community and they offer a place for people to exchange ideas. But people have to actually do that. Exchanging pleasantries is not the same as exchanging ideas.

The Dancing Grouse, Diana's store, is a definite third place for me and for others here. And I have made some friends there. And it is certainly a place where people talk - the atmosphere is conducive to that and that's because Diana has made a real effort to create it.

I think the trick is how you move beyond that casual hello to each other in a coffee shop to something resembling a relationship. At one time people knew how to do that. I'm not sure we do anymore. We are a nation afraid of everything - including our fellow humans. Statistically the number of friends we have continues to decrease, as it has for the past few decades. We seem far too afraid of the risk to take a chance in most cases.

However, the idea of not having any gathering places seems awful. That, in a nutshell, is what suburbia is. People go to work, commute home, drive into their houses through the garage door, close them and don't venture out until the next morning when they go to work. In smaller communities people gather at the local restaurant where there's a group of elderly men "having coffee." In bigger cities, people have many choices of places to drop into. In suburbia there's no where to go.

I have read that planners have started to take these things into consideration when planning communities. I think that's healthy. We have to at least give people an opportunity to relearn the skills we've lost.

I've been mulling over this idea for the past few weeks. The conclusion I've come to is that "third places" offer the opportunity but it is still incumbent on the individual to go beyond the casual into the meaningful.

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