Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Third Place? I Don't Know

On my recent trip to Pittsburgh, I read an article in Acela, the Amtrak on-board magazine, called "The Race for Third Place." (It appears to have been picked up from the airline magazine Arrive, because I found a copy of it here.) It was about how the recession is posing a special challenge for businesses that have been trying to market themselves as "third places"--that is, places where people spend significant amounts of time other than home and work. A "third place" could be a bar, a library, a coffee shop, a health club, a church, or a shopping mall--anyplace where people go just to "hang out," rather than going in, conducting their business, and leaving.

The existence of places like this is one of the things that holds communities together. That's why I like living in a town that has both bars and churches, even though I never spend any time at either type of place. It's why I mourned the passing of the local sweetshop, with its bona fide old-fashioned soda fountain, even though I only actually went there a few times a year. And it's why I was disappointed when the "comic cafe" across the river, once a great hangout where you could enjoy an ice cream or browse through comics or both (just so long as you didn't actually handle food and comics at the same time), moved to a new venue, where the comic shop was upstairs and the cafe downstairs, with no seating at all in the comic area (presumably because they didn't want to encourage folks to sit down and look at the merchandise) and so little in the cafe that you would feel guilty about lingering for even a minute after finishing your food. (I lost all interest in going there after that, and the Troll switched to buying his comics from another store, one that sold games as well as comics and actually encouraged hanging out.)

But it occurred to me as I read the article that, although I recognize the importance of places like these, I don't really have a "third place" myself. Sure, I like to go to a coffeehouse once in a while, but I'm not a regular at any particular coffeehouse. I take ample advantage of our local library, but I don't really hang out there--I mostly just go in, browse through the books and videos, choose one or don't choose one, and leave. I don't sit down with the book I've found and read it right there. In fact, because I work at home, I really don't even have a second place, let alone a third one.

So why, if I understand the value of having a place to hang out, don't I have one? I think it's because for me a "third place" would have to be someplace I could spend significant amounts of time without spending significant amounts of money. That lets out the coffeehouses, because $3 or $4 a drink starts running into money when you make a daily habit of it. And it lets out the library, because you can't eat or drink at all in there, and I like to have something to sip while I read. So the closest thing I have to a "third place" is the local park, where I like to go for walks in the summer, and where I can sometimes perch on a park bench and work on a crossword and drink my own coffee that I made at home, without having to pay $4 for it. But the thing is, when I go and hang out at the park, I'm hanging out by myself. I might see a few joggers passing through, or a mom with her kids, but I don't usually interact with anybody. It isn't really a place where I could go to meet people, or even just to be around people.

I wonder why in a town like mine, which does such a good job in so many ways of maintaining strong community ties, there are no real public spaces for people to connect with their neighbors?
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