I chose the theme of community once again for my summer classes. We read Ray Oldenburg's The Great Good Place during the second part of the term. Oldenburg explores what he calls "third places." Basically, home is first, work is second, and any informal gathering place outside of those is third. Oldenburg argues that these places are disappearing and the ones that do exist aren't being used very well. The problem is that these places serve important functions in our lives and we're missing a lot by not having them.
Examples of third places might be coffee shops, barber shops, bars, "Main St.," and anywhere else where people socialize and catch up on the happenings of the community. It's easy to see that these places are still around, but they're not what they used to be. People live in isolation even when they're in public. The idea is to bring back the spirit of what they used to be.
If you're skeptical, here are 8 reasons that the spirit of getting out and enjoying the third place spirit will improve your life:
1. Spontaneity and variety. Chances are, at home and work, you know who you're going to see and even what you're going to. There is a lot of routine, and events that seem different or new (like, say, watching a new TV show or making something different for dinner) still happen within a pretty predictable boundary. At a place like a bar or cafe, the mixture of personalities, of strangers and regulars, means you're more likely to run into the unexpected. Spontaneity and variety keep us feeling like our lives are interesting.
2. Conversation. One of the key elements of a third place, what makes a third place a third place, is conversation. We tend to think that people go to bars to get drunk, but that hasn't always been the case. What if you went to a bar to have a couple drinks but spend most of your time catching up with the other patrons? You could have the opportunity to share something, to help someone, to learn something, and maybe even to make a friend. Conversation seems to be a dying art. This could help revive it.
3. Exhibition. Oldenburg says that in a third place, a person can become a singer, a dancer, a therapist, or a hero. It's not truly an escape from your life; it's another side to who you are and a way to handle the stresses of life.
4. Caring and safety. If you live alone but you have a place you visit regularly, people will know something's up if you don't show up. People will be concerned.
5. Neutral ground. If you invite people to your house, you have to clean, provide food, and entertain them. If you invite people to a bar, then you all can enjoy the evening without putting anybody out. Also, you can leave whenever you want to. You don't end up being stuck with anybody for an entire evening.
6. Networking. Because you never know who's going to show up, the purpose is conversation, and it's a neutral meeting ground, networking for professional purposes seems like a pretty obvious result of spending time in public spaces.
7. Political change. Let's face it: this country has some issues, and if you think our problems are going to get solved on a national level in one fell swoop, then you're crazy. Change generally happens on a community level first. It starts with a few people sitting around over a beer talking about the changes they'd like to see. Then it turns into an organized initiative. Then it grows and connections are made with other like-minded organizations in other communities. And so on. This is the reason that malevolent rulers tend to outlaw places where people can gather (you know, like how Wal-Mart uses security cameras to keep its employees from unionizing).
8. Entertainment. You know, fun. Remember what that is? Television is not as fun as we've been led to believe it is. Neither is Facebook. I'm not saying they aren't fun at all, but for the time we spend with them, they produce few memorable events. They're also really passive and sedentary. We can do better than that.
So, this is where my monthly theme of getting out more came from. I did try to spend more time outside the home, although I'd still like to get out more often. I learned that my gym is open until 11 p.m. on Fridays and that it's totally acceptable to eat popcorn at a cafe.
Are you a regular at any third place? Tell me about it!