I found The Great Good Place by Ray Oldenburg to be far more helpful and insightful than I expected. While I had heard of the concept of a "third place" before, the multifaceted approach of the book drew a much more robust image of what such a place is, significantly raising my expectations for what a third place must be.
Here are the characteristics of third places:
- Conversation - Good conversation is the sine qua non of the third place. Everyone can contribute, and each one's personality is allowed full play—and is fair game for friendly ribbing.
- Regulars - Even if secondary to conversation, regulars are likewise essential to the third place. One can go there without a plan or a fixed schedule and expect to find old and new friends and good conversation. Very much like Cheers.
- Accessible - The third place is close enough to walk to several times a week and is free or inexpensive.
- Neutral Ground - The third place is not intimate and guarded as your home is, and you control how much and what kind of interaction you want there.
- Leveling - People of all walks of life are brought to the same level. If there is any hierarchy, it is based on quality of conversation and insight, not social position.
- Taken for granted, Low profile - They are not advertised and don't seek out visitors or passersby. Conversation is what draws people there, not the appearance of the place.
The third place, also referred to as the Great Good Place, is so called because it is the third of three anchor points for our social lives, the first being home and the second being work. After making the initial case for third places, Oldenburg spends a large part of the book sketching some third places from America and Europe, describing them in their ideal form as well as tracing their historical development and their decline through the Twentieth Century. I found this part to be helpful in understanding the third-place concept across culture and history as well as fascinating in all the details that he digs up about them.
The connections that Oldenburg draws between the third place and society in general were so compelling and so broad that it would not be an exaggeration to say that he has changed the way I think about the world. Third places are important not only to individual happiness as a place to let off steam and find respite from the pressures of work and home, but also to the success of democracy, marriage, and raising children. One gets a sense that the isolation that characterizes so much of modern life is more than just an unpleasant way to live; it is an affront to human nature. We weren't meant to live like this; we were meant to live for more.
According to Oldenburg, other cultural commentators, and even my own admittedly inadequate observation, there are few true third places in our communities. Most places are not unique and neither have personality nor allow those who go there to express their personalities. Even the places where people go to hang out and have a good time are generally what Oldenburg calls "BYOF" (Bring Your Own Friend). Most of us compensate for not having third places by either programming most of our free time so we have things to do and people to see or else we hole up at home with "home entertainment" like movies, t.v., and internet. I read the first edition of the book, copyright 1989, so it doesn't deal with the internet, but I think that the profusion of "social networking" and even blogs has much to do with an attempt to fill the third-place void.
It would be an interesting exercise for all of us to walk around our neighborhoods and look for third places. Is there anywhere where you can find regulars engaged in conversation? To find that, you can't just walk by on the sidewalk. Going inside isn't even enough. You would need to stop in and observe the people who are there, take note of who they are (as individuals), and watch (and perhaps experience) how they notice and react to new visitors. Does it feel like Cheers?
I strongly recommend reading this book. Although written by a scholar, it is very accessible. The details included in the book fill in the picture of a third-place much more than can be done in any review. Whether you are looking for a third place or want to be involved in creating third places, the book is essential reading.