Ephemeral great good places

Recently read Ray Oldenburg’s “Celebrating the Third Place“, a book of case studies intending to provide instances of the type of “Great Good Place” that he praised in the 1990s classic about “third places” between home and work.   I’d never read the original, and found that it was unavailable for an impulse read on kindle or a nearby library, but the sequel was on Kindle.

“Third places” in Oldenburg’s “Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts and How They Get You Through the Day” are personally comforting and valuable for social and civic life, according to Oldenburg’s argument as reflected in the sequel.   They provide places for people to socialize outside of racial and class hierarchies.   But they were in deep decline, in an era of suburbanization, with chain stores focused on customer turnover, public spaces minimized and privatized, and people preferring to stay at home with television and videogames, before the internet provided even more attractions to screens indoors.

Great Good Place

The case studies in “Celebrating” include a garden supply store, a couple of bookstores, a record store, several coffee shops and restaurants, a couple of bars, a passport photo shop with a homegrown book club, an open air market. Plus, an essay arguing that prison served as a third place for the author and his fellow inmates.   The chapters are contributed by people involved in the places, describing the atmosphere, staff, customers and community, origins, triumphs and challenges.  And stories about how the connections made at these places enriched participants’ lives.

Out of the places in the book, only a few are still in business after twenty years.  A declining mall in the Seattle area that was rehabbed around surprising concepts of common space, performance art, ethnic communities and branch offices of public services.   A bookstore in a resort community.   A fish taco local chain under new management.

Some of the businesses are in sectors – books, music – that were hit hard by digitization (after all, I got the book on Kindle, and there are no longer local bookstores that would have this sort of older classic in stock).   Most were small businesses depending on the founders; they closed because of hard times, or the founders moved on.   The repurposed mall is still in business; the founder’s kids are apparently taking over the business and adding housing to the mix of uses, which is a good sign of increasing durability?

What does it mean, that this type of place deemed essential for social and civic life is so ephemeral?   The profiled places are mostly independent food service businesses, which are notoriously risky and short-lived.   Chains from the era of the original “Third Place” book – Starbuck’s, Applebees – are still going strong, with institutional management and funding.   Upon reflection, two independent “community institution” cafes near where I live – Borrone in Menlo Park and Coupa in Palo Alto, are established family businesses with multiple family members, and have been going strong since the days of Oldenburg’s books, although I don’t think they would meet the criterion of a third place where people meet folk they don’t already know and build ties.    It’s possible that the book had a selection bias in favor of less stable businesses.   The chapters were provided by voluntary contributions; and perhaps chapters were contributed by proprietors who were seeking marketing help by being included in the book?

Our society and economy provides more solid support for corporate chains than indies; corporations do a somewhat better job of transmitting organizational life past the tenure of founders; multi-generational family businesses are more rare. This has benefits in addition to drawbacks; blood ties aren’t the only ways to get business stability, and children can pursue their own interests rather than being stuck in the family trade.

Perhaps there is a flaw in the romantic concept of an independent business, which has difficulty building stability?  Perhaps there is unappreciated strength in the old-fashioned forms of civic institutions – the Elks and Lions and so on – and the churches and synagogues that provide community spaces across decades and past the tenure of individual leaders.

There are continual cultural ebbs and flows across history; escalated by capitalism but endemic in the evolution of cultures.  Food drink, and types of restaurants; games and other types of  secular socializing all change over time and their places and organizations change. That was one of the fallacies of Robert Putnam’s 1995 essay “Bowling Alone“, which in the same time frame as Oldenburg lamented the loss of civic and social institutions in a suburban and privatized world, but also fallaciously equated the decline of old-fangled associations like bowling leagues and Elks Clubs with an absolute decline of social association.

This is not even to start to engage the questions about the relative benefits and drawbacks of online social networks and their relationships to social capital.

Another question about the ephemeral nature of the “third places” profiled by Oldenburg. Do actual public spaces do a better job of supporting social connections over time than these small and fragile private spaces.   Suburbanization separated people physically, replaced public squares and markets with tightly controlled private malls, and minimized the role of streets in fostering social activities.

Scholars and intellectuals starting with William Whyte and Jane Jacobs, and practitioners including Jan Gehl and the team at Project for Public Spaces created a discipline to study and recreate public spaces that people enjoy and use.  The Open Streets movement started with Ciclovia in the 1970s in Columbia to recapture streets for people.   Places revived by Jan Gehl and his team have been thriving for decades.   The plazas, avenues, and waterfront promenades reinvigorated by these placemaking activities don’t depend on any single business – they benefit from rules that foster (and don’t prohibit) multiple sociable activities in proximity – food carts and trucks, performing artists,  outdoor games.  As public spaces, they foster activities that don’t require money to participate, and don’t have a rigorous turnover requirement to make a profit (although gathering many people together in shifting assortments provides an economic boost).

On reflection good number of the shuttered businesses were physically isolated, in keeping with the suburban and exurban norm. The garden store in Western Mass sat alone on a highway exit; the gym in Atlanta requires people to drive to a place to get exercise; one of the cafes/performance spaces was in a repurposed church in a changing neighborhood (also raising questions about whose sets of social institutions Oldenburg was primed to see).

The “third place” that seemed to be the most well established after 15 years was the semi-public space in the revived Seattle area mall, which has had a changing assortment of businesses over the years, plus common space supporting music, performing arts, outdoor chess, and just hanging out.

So maybe the stability of “third places” depends in no small part on the existence of actual public space, and the flow of a critical mass of people in the transect between public space and highly social private third space?

All of these are questions.  Some of you reading may have more knowledge and more insights, or more questions. Comments are welcome.

For peterme who wants to know whether I recommend the book.  The book itself isn’t great, but raises a lot of interesting questions.  At some point I’ll go read the Oldenburg original.

 

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