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Threnody for the Third Place

Updated: Feb 18, 2021



In 1989, urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg published a book entitled The Great Good Place. Life unfolds in three realms, he posited: the “first place” of home, the “second place” of work, and the great, good “third place” of coffeeshops, libraries, parks, clubs, and so on. The third place is openly accessible and neutral ground, where class distinctions fade and visitors may come and go as they please. It is a home away from home, where people come to relax and to engage with their community. In fiction, the third place is often so integral to the plot that it arguably serves as a supporting character. It’s JJ’s Diner from Parks and Recreation, Luke’s in Gilmore Girls, the mall in Stranger Things, and Truvy’s salon in Steel Magnolias. Oldenburg argued that the third place is essential to democratic society because it is the place where activities are organized, communities are built, and social ties are strengthened. If ever there were any doubt regarding the importance of the third place, surely by now it has been erased. Since the COVID-19 crisis brought the world to its knees, we—as individuals, as cities, and as nations—have mourned not only the loss of human life but also the loss of public life. For many of us, our lives now unfold in only two realms. For a smaller but no less significant number of us, those realms have been reduced to one. As we have adopted a global consciousness, united in our universal struggle against a deadly virus, our worlds have grown smaller. Gone, for now, are the days when we could gather with friends for a cup of coffee, share a round of drinks with coworkers, or go out to eat with our families. The death of the third place is effectively the death of community. And where there is no community, there is no civic engagement. At least, there wouldn’t be if not for the virtual third places that have arisen in recent years. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, protests have been held, boycotts have been organized, and movements have been mobilized. These initiatives transformed into actions even while people were barred from public spaces. Online communities may lack many traits that make the physical third place a robust environment for social and civic life, but they are in some ways more accessible and more comfortable than their corporeal counterparts. The internet, after all, is a ground more level than any coffeeshop could ever hope to be, and there is freedom in anonymity for those who choose to don its cloak. The Green Dragon in Boston may have served as “the headquarters of the Revolution” in the 18th century, and the Declaration of Independence may have first been read aloud to the public in Merchant’s Coffee House. But can anyone alive today remember when anything of more cultural significance than an open mic night last happened in such an establishment? I assume the answer for most is no, but I bet many of you have witnessed or participated in political discussions online. The internet is our latest center of civic engagement. But what do we miss out on in the absence of a physical third place? The presence of others, whether they be friends or strangers, is more strongly felt in a common space. We may not have made the wisest social or political use of our third places within the past few decades, with more and more people devoting their attention to laptops and mobile devices rather than to one another within those walls. Before six feet of social distance became a federal mandate, a metaphorical distance of our own making had metastasized among us. Yet there is something to be said for the rituals shared in barbershops, beneath communal pavilions, and on brewery patios. Whatever our affiliations, whatever demographic categories we fall into by accident of birth or circumstance, these are the activities and spaces we hold in common. In one way or another, they unite us, and we are now—more than ever—feeling the privation of that unity. In their absence, the virtual third place is one among few avenues of relief and restitution of our disintegrated social bonds. One day there will be a return to normalcy, and perhaps in that return we will bring with us a newfound appreciation for the third place and the role it serves in our lives, as well as a newfound wisdom in our treatment of it. #covid19 #coronavirus #thethirdplace #community #politics #society #rituals #unity

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