Building Community, One Third Place at a Time

Yesterday, I went to a nearby branch of the Dallas Public Library to pick up a book I’d requested, Celebrating the Third  Place: Inspiring Stories about the “Great Good Places” at the Heart of Our Communities. I haven’t finished the book yet, but I’ve read enough to become enamored of several of the places described in the stories I’ve read: Annie’s Gift and Garden Shop in Amherst, Massachusetts; The Third Place Coffee House in Raleigh, North Carolina; Crossroads in Lake Forest Park, Washington; Horizon Books in Traverse City, Michigan; Old Saint George in Cincinnati, Ohio; and Square One Restaurant in San Francisco, California.  The book was published in 2001; some of these may places no longer exist (Square One doesn’t); what is important to me is that they did exist and that they met a need, a longing, for a place where people could find community and camaraderie and acceptance.

The concept of The Third Place has had deep appeal for me ever since I learned of Ray Oldenburg’s book, The Great Good Place.  In fact, I’ve been interested in the concept since long before I learned of Oldenburg’s book, but Oldenburg gave the idea a name, an identity.  Here, in a nutshell, are the characteristics of a Third Place:

It is neutral.  No one is obligated to be there and there is no financial tie to the place.
Conversation is a key activity, though not necessarily the only one.  The Third Place is a place people come to talk and to listen.
It is accessible and accommodating, easy to be there and get there.
There are plenty of regulars who spend time there, people who serve as hosts or guides to those new to the environment.
The Third Place is low key, relaxed, absent pretense. Everyone can feel comfortable.
The atmosphere is relaxed, the mood is playful.
It is warm, comfortable, and homey. It is a home away from home.

In the foreword to Celebrating the Third Place, Oldenburg says something about the need for third places, something I think would resonate with most of us:

We may not need third place association to build a town hall anymore, but we sorely need it to construct the infrastructure of human relationships. Ever since the solidifying efforts of World Ward II passed into history, Americans have been growing further apart from one another. Lifestyles are increasingly privatized and competitive; residential areas are increasingly devoid of gathering places. To the extent of our affluence, we avoid public parks, public playgrounds, public schools, and public transportation. (Emphasis is mine.)

I think Oldenburg nailed a key contributor to the growing isolation we feel in our society: our own success, our own affluence, is silently smothering our sense of community.  Why go to a public park when we can create a park-like setting in our own back yard?  Why take children to a public playground when we can entertain children with big-screen television and video games?  Why take public transportation when we can enjoy the convenience and luxury of our own cars?  Increasingly, we are choosing convenience over experience. Our own financial success is shredding our social fabric.  We associate only with those of like socio-economic status, sacrificing the intellectual and emotional growth and understanding that can and does occur when we truly become part of a community.

Oldenburg says something else in the foreword that gave me pause. He said: “Our society, alas, has become much like Tocqueville’s homeland, in which governmental agencies are expected to do whatever needs doing. Yet what government does is done remotely and impersonally; its focus is on our weaknesses and dependencies and its policies define us accordingly.” Given my very, very strong sense that government should do what needs doing, I initially reacted negatively to that idea.  But it occurs to me that often I want government to step in because the private sector does not, at least not in consistent, dependable ways.  The private sector–our community–is abandoning us and I am asking government to step in to do the job that “we” fail to do for ourselves.  I will not stop asking government to do that…I believe government should step in when “we” can’t or won’t do what should be done to ensure our society is just.  But, ultimately, I would prefer that we Americans work to reshape our society into one that is more democratic, caring, and cohesive.  That’s why I find the third place so appealing.

I’ve written several times about the third place, about wanting to create a third place where I live (wherever that ends up…we still don’t know where and when).  I know I can’t do it by myself and, in fact, I don’t want to; that would be anathema to the idea!  But I know I want to be a part of creating such a “place” whenever and wherever we “land” in  a place we can call home.  The idea is always on my mind. I’m always, always thinking about it.  Whenever I find a place with some of the characteristics of a third place, I find myself getting excited about it and I want to talk to the people involved in making the place what it is.  But I am well aware of the fact that there are plenty of imitators, people who create places that are meant to look like, but in fact are not really, a true third place.  So I always temper my excitement with a dose of skepticism.  Maybe that’s anathema to the concept, too, but I can’t help myself.  I want to find, and talk to, people who drank the koolaid, people whose interest in creating and sustaining a third place is more about community than about money.  And I’m always on the lookout for people who are willing to talk about and, perhaps, ultimately risk their own time and money, to create a third place.

I won’t tire of talking and writing about this.  One day. One day…

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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