Alone, Suburban & Sorted: Part 7, The Third Place

In this post we begin to discuss sociologist Ray Oldenburg's book The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community.

Oldenburg begins The Great Good Place with a few quotes. I'd like to share two of them to start us off:

But aside from friends, there must also be a Place. I suppose that this is the Great Good Place that every man carries in his heart...
--Pete Hamill

A community life exists when one can go daily to a given location at a given time and see many of the people one knows.
--Philip Slater

Oldenburg begins his book by discussing the Problem of Place in America today. The Problem of Place is the result of rapid changes that have occurred in American living arrangements after World War II. Specifically, after WWII America witnessed the rise of the automotive suburb. War veterans, seeking a peaceful existence, began to seek out quiet enclaves, a patch of grass and a cul de sac. Although there is nothing wrong with quiet neighborhoods, many things were sacrificed in how Americans built their suburbs. Specifically, the following places began to vanish from American lives:

Pedestrian-heavy sidewalks on Main Street
Main Street hangouts (barbershops, soda fountains, diners)
The front porch (the back porch with a fenced in backyard predominates in suburbs)
Corner stores
Corner taverns and pubs
Local parks

According to Oldenburg, the loss of these places have dramatically affected American community. Without places to mix, converse, and connect American social life has grown thin. And it's mainly a problem of place. We've lost the locations where social connections are made and maintained. Why did Americans trade in vibrant communities for quiet suburbs? Oldenburg gives Dolores Hayden's answer: Americans have "substituted the vision of the ideal home for that of the ideal city."

With the loss of these places Americans have been reduced to commuting between two locations: Home and work. A person leaves home in the morning and heads to work. After work we drive back home. Thus, Americans are largely reduced to living in two places. But for a fuller social existence Oldenburg argues that we need a "third place" in our lives. Oldenburg notes that all vibrant communities have third places, places other than home or work, where community and fellowship can be found. In America it was the shops, parks, soda fountains, diners, barbershops and taverns along Main Street. In England it is the local pub. In France it is the coffeehouse. In Germany, the beer garden. Europe has largely kept its third places while Americans have gradually lost theirs. Thus, many Europeans struggle with living in American suburbs. One can't take a quick walk around the corner to grab a pint and chat up the gang about news and events. Of course, one can drive somewhere to get a pint but it's hard to build up a regular clientele if people have to drive miles to get to the establishment. Thus, many Americans might go to pubs or coffee shops but they tend to do so sporadically and often alone. As a consequence, very little social mixing occurs.

Oldenburg summarizes:

"A two-stop model of daily routine is becoming fixed in our habits as the urban environment affords less opportunity for public relaxation. Our familiar gathering centers are disappearing rapidly...The new kinds of places emphasize fast service, not slow and easy relaxation.

In the absence of an informal public life, people's expectations toward work and family life have escalated beyond the capacity of those institutions to meet them. Domestic and work relationships are pressed to supply all that is wanting and much that is missing in the constricted life-styles of those without community." (p. 9)

"The problem of place in America manifests itself in a sorely deficient informal public life. The structure of shared experience beyond what is offered by family, job, and passive consumerism is small and dwindling. The essential group experience is being replaced by the exaggerated self-consciousness of individuals. American life-styles, for all their material acquisition and the seeking after comforts and pleasures, are plagued by boredom, loneliness, alienation, and a high price tag. America can point to many areas where she has made progress, but in the area of informal public life she has lost ground and continues to lose it." (p. 13)

"The examples set by societies that have solved the problem of place and those set by the small towns and vital neighborhoods of our past suggest that daily life, in order to be relaxed and fulfilling, must find its balance in three realms of experience. One is domestic, a second is gainful and productive, and the third is inclusively sociable, offering both the basis of community and the celebration of it. Each of these realms of experience is built on associations and relationships appropriate to it; each has its own physically separate and distinct places; each must have its measure of autonomy from the others...In the the United States, the middle classes particularly are attempting a balancing act on a bipod consisting of home and work. That alienation, boredom, and stress are endemic among us is not surprising. For most of us, a third of life is either deficient or absent altogether, and the other two-thirds cannot be successfully integrated into a whole." (p. 14, 15)

"For want of a suitable existing term, we introduce our own: the third place will hereafter be used to signify what we have called 'the core settings of informal public life.' The third place is a generic designation for a great variety of public places that host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work...[The term] underscores the significance of the tripod and the relative importance of its three legs." (p. 16)

I want to dwell on third places as these observations converge upon the trends noted in the earlier posts. That is, Americans are socially disengaged, sorted into communities of like-mindedness, and have largely lost their third places. But I also wanted to end this series with the third place as I think the third place might allow us to reverse or mitigate some of the trends we have been discussing. If third places can be cultivated, if the Problem of Place is addressed, much of what we have been discussing (disengagement, sorted communities) might be overcome (locally and to some small degree). If so, then it is worth the effort to explore the characteristics of third places in a little more detail.

Final Post: Where Everybody Knows Your Name

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19 thoughts on “Alone, Suburban & Sorted: Part 7, The Third Place”

  1. To some, the locale of sporting events might represent a 3rd place. The university football stadium here seats 100,000+ and attendance seems almost a religious ritual. Owing to their higher frequency, professional sporting event facilities may also function similarly. That is a guess. I've never lived in such a city but it seems possible that for many people they are 3rd places.

  2. I have a question as to how you are critiquing the American way of life, as you obviously think that work or the domestic realm does not meet some "standard" of an "ideal". What is that "standard" and where does that "ideal" come from? I am imagning that your "ideal" somewhat has diversity as its standard, but why is this important to you?

    Secondly, what is the primary concern about this situaion, as it concerns, human flourishing?

  3. Hey Richard
    I don't have much to say in the way of thoughtful comments, but I do want to put out a related story.

    Given that I am working on my dissertation now close to 100% of the time, added to that the fact that my office at WashU is windowless, I tend to do a lot of my work at coffee shops. One of my coffee local shops is a place called Hartford Coffee Co, about a half mile from the house. I go there quite often but usually try to mix it up enough so that I am not the guy that comes in and takes up a table with books and a computer for 4ish hours every morning. While my intuitive side says mix it up, there is a certain 3rd place element to Hartford that I think is healthy, even if there is a part of me that recoils at being too familiar. Anyway, I just wanted to say that I am tying this from hartford as we speak, as I think your argument for the importance of places like this is right on.

  4. Peter,
    I am assuming from your post that you suggest that "bookish knowledge" falls short of experiential knowledge? Perhaps, Richard would agree since his site is called "experimental theology". Is this what diversity training about, dissolving prejuidice? as if prejuidice, itself is not based on some reasonable explaination itself?

    It would indeed be ironic if those whose "bookish knowledge" require experience of others to prove their bookish knowledge!

  5. On Fridays, we drop our kids at their schools and go out for a coffee date. We used to do Starbucks, but switched to McD's by the mall. There's a fascinating group of about a dozen mid-to-oldtimers (all men, and no young guns) who are meeting there each time. Some appear to be ACU cronies... They seem to have history together, and they have a great time, congregating for conversation and coffee on informal terms and neutral territory. I'm inclined to think that kind of diversity and neutrality won't likely happen in churches, though many of them have become radically informal in efforts to replicate that sort of "place."

  6. Richard,
    I had an interesting and revealing "experience" just now. My grand-daughter is in the hospital due to a UTI. I had not even thought of calling the church we attend, as I really question God's answering prayer, and I didn't want to bother them (but honestly, I have learned to not depend on the Church during crisis).
    So, just now, my daughter told me that the church had called her husband's brother to inquire about our grand-daughter. I was livid. Why? Because it "said" to me that the "in group" was to discuss our situation without coming to us directly and asking. I felt objectified, not cared for. Now, I understand rationally, this was an emotional reaction to my previous experience of the church (not this speicific church) for over the last decade. And because of my intellectual dissolution of the Church as to authority, I am in a place to ask myself questions about the rationale of my faith, which are philosophical questions, not easliy answered, nor answered by everyone the same way.

    I tell you this to underline the necessity of developing reasoned faith. Experiential faith is based on 'emoional messages" that meet felt needs, but are not based in critical realism. I want to explore where my faith plays out. Does the human being have value apart from function in society, if so, why? Do criminals deserve respect or any "rights" to trial by jury? If so, why? In understanding in/out groups, where are the lines to be drawn for me, rationally..and can I respond to prejuidce with a cool head and not a hot heart, distancing myself and not taking it personally.

    This is important work for me, due to what faith means for and to me. and it is not based on outside sources of authority but reasoned philosophical questions and self- reflection, bringing coherency.

  7. Hey Angie
    Thanks for the push-back... didn't mean to say that stories do not contain knowledge, or that books are not experimental in knowledge formation. I think stories are, in many ways, the best way we learn (whether that be stories in books, or stories from real life). I just meant to say that I didn't have much to ADD to the post, but rather wanted to point out that I found it very personally applicable on this rainy Tuesday morning in StL.

    Related to your comment, I was reading this morning an article by Nic Wolterstorff this morning that you might find interesting. He highlights the tendency of people in an academic setting to denigrate certain types of knowledge/ practice (specifically that of the craftsman). It's something I have an implicit tendency to do, to have a hierarchy of different types of work or forms of understanding.

    Here is the wolterstorff article if anyone is interested:

  8. Richard, when you mentioned the beer gardens in Germany, my mind quickly turned back to the month I spent in Leipzig. My experiences at a beer garden and in restaurants there were decidedly different from my customary dining out state-side. With the exception of eating out to celebrate a special occasion, I think our mindset toward eating out in America is one that's bent toward efficiency. Obviously, fast-food points to that, but I think it's the case for sit-down meals as well. Sure, we might chat a bit during the meal, but once the bill comes, we tend to pay up and be on our way. In Germany I sat in a restaurant once for close to three hours. Half of that time was after the bill came. Eating (or having a beer) there is almost as much about socializing as it is about the meal.

    Peter, your mentioning of your local coffee shop made me think of Taylor Swift's Starbucked, an entertaining and insightful little book. At one point he discusses how Howard Schultz envisioned Starbucks as one of Oldenburg's "third places." Although you actually converse with people, I notice that frequently whenever I go to a Starbucks or any other coffee shop, there seems to be more people sitting alone reading or working on a laptop than socializing. I suppose those people can still find relaxation there although it would seem to do little to mitigate the aloneness Richard has addressed.

    I wonder, too, how much bringing work to a coffee shop hinders it from being a true "third place." The school were I used to teach had "faculty retreats" every spring, where we would go to a more-than-Spartan camp in the hill country west of Austin. Eventually, the retreats became enjoyable, but the first couple were essentially off-site faculty meetings and work sessions, which pretty much sucked the relaxation right out of the retreat.

  9. Peter,
    There are some people I find that it is better to not engage in certain dialogue, as they tend to feel threatened, as it undermines their "reality".

    It means that I cannot quesiton them, or their beliefs and I just let them think what they want to think, as that is how they have put their "world" together. And if they do not need it challenged, then why should I dissolve a relationship because I want to prove a point. But, these are not people that I can really relate on a deep level to, as their interests are not mine. That is just a fact of life. And that is why we choose to associate or dis-associate with who we do. There is nothing wrong with that.And I don't think it is anyone's "moral obligation" to train another in things they are not willingly and voluntarily desirous of learning...Life has enough bumps for us all, than to intentionally make problems for another..

    So, I am not about "stories" but about "reality", as to what is of importance and why...and it is self-questioning as to my own values.

  10. I'm trying to engage with this excellent series of posts from a British perspective. Granted, over here we have not tended to have the 'front porch' phenomenon - but, as noted, we still do have the pub, our gift to the world maybe.

    Yet it would be true to say that arenas for diverse, heterogenous social interaction have shrunk here too. Just now, where I live in the South East of England, a cluster of new housing estates is being built, and our council has not taken care to insert public meeting space into the plans. Thus, and especially in winter, people leave their homes by car before sunrise and return after nightfall. There is no need to connect with anyone outside work or home. And, where people do, it is on the basis of networking, choice and, generally, one suspects, similarity of view and outlook.

    I have been suggesting for some time that church, properly envisioned, can be the very place where all the goods Richard mentions in part 6 of this series - including the skills of welcome, debate, listening, inclusion and hospitality - can be practised and honed.

    Anyway, there's a link at, for what it's worth...

  11. Richard,

    Oldenburg's two places--domestic and work--are, it seems to me, not accurately described. Work is the overwhelmingly dominant of the two since the monetization and commodification of work which has gone on since the early 1970s. The average American worker in 1970 was male and worked the "traditional" forty hour week (with occasional overtime if a factory worker). Today, the average worker is both male and female (though females are paid at lower rates) and they work close to fifty hours per week--the addition of an entire day of work. Americans of both genders are now addicted to work because of what that social addiction promises. Thus, domesticity, in addition to informal social spaces, has also been marginalized, home being only a place to lay one's head for so many. The family and, especially, our children have suffered because of it.

    I am reposting below what I wrote in response to your purple post. It is more appropriate here. I think we have to be intentional about place and conversation, which retrospectively seem to be more organic and traditional.

    "In the Dallas area every first Friday evening of the month, a number of us gather for a salon at the Dallas Institute for Humanities and Culture for open conversation. We discuss a variety of matters, exchange opinions, and express our points of view. It is a safe "place," though not without risk for those set in their ways. Individuals don't often change their thinking, but they come away with their perspectives enriched. "Bridging" takes place and new friendships are sometimes made. It is a marvelous venue and I invite anyone in the area to be my guest at the Salon on 3 April or on 1 May.

    By the way, bridging can, I think, take place in cyberspace. But it is much better in an actual place precisely because we are embodied."


  12. It seems that there is concerted effort to "unite" our differences, to the dissolving of them.

    Although I understand that this may have "noble underpinnings' of "peace and goodwill to all men", it limits our ability to live in the world reasonably. Some possibly don't need reasons, except for daily sustenance. Should I care, if someone doesn't eat? What is social or moral obligation to another when another is not acting responsibly?

    The bail-out of AIG and the disregard for respectable and responsible behavior in our leaders in D.C. have left little moral example to appeal to the American public about thier "moral obligations or responsibilities" toward others....this is human nature, as we do not desire to do anything that those in leadership will not do, but requires of the "common person".The "common person" by example has been diminished by leadership disregard for the "rule of law", and the arrogant behavior toward those who do not have the same "power".

    But, then again, it boils down to values and what one values most will determine who they respect for their leader....some respect practical leaders and others respect intellectual leaders....because some base their actions on beliefs or values, whereas others are more practical by nature. They don't "think" about the reasons. There is a "need", then do it...

    Whenever decisions are made and there is disregard (which is really, disrespect) of someone's "life", then that life resents being told by those "others" what is to be done, or understood. This is where our social contract (the Constitution) is an important value, as it vales both employer and employee (citizen and governmental/representative leader)...

  13. When I was reading your description of the "third place," I thought of the sitcom, "Cheers,"

    "Where Ev'ry body knows your name, and they're always glad you came."

    That theme song ends, "I wana be where ev'ry body knows your name."

    Would that more churches were like that!

  14. I had Cheers running through my head too, Jerry :)

    Third places. This is why I get so het up about public spaces and why some of my friends think I am over-ranting when I get angry at the control freakishness that goes on within them there in Australia.

    I go religiously to the football, and every time am irritated at how the shared spaces people occupy are drowned out by voiceovers and giant screens and bells and whistles and hoopla. Sort of like churches, just even more irritating, if possible.

    The local pubs here, while looking much sexier than they did on average 15 years ago, are also more increasingly overrun by poker machines.

    I thirst for local community places that belong to us all. I do suspect that they will begin popping up again, as we all come to realise that we are collectively rather insane without each other.

    I love this series of posts Richard. Much food for thought.

  15. Jerry & Sue,
    Cheers is right on. The next post leads with the song...

    Peter & Jason,
    I'm wrestling a bit with how much to get into the Starbucks/Coffeeshop as Third Place issue. Last year Len Sweet was on our campus talking about his book The Gospel According to Starbucks. It's basically an appeal to the church to look at Starbucks as a model. Which hit me and a lot of people the wrong way, as Starbucks is basically the McDonalds of our generation. That said, as you noted Peter, when a group of regulars settle into a coffeeshop (Starbucks or not) I think a model for the church does emerge.

    I've noticed similar groups at the McDonalds by our house and the Jack & Jill. This post makes me want to do a sociological inventory of third places in the city. Abilene is small enough that I think a group of people could map them out.

    fizzog & Sue,
    I was hoping some of this might be interesting outside of an American context. Thanks for weighing in. Fizzog, we're on the same page. A part of what I'm interested in exploring is how the church might function as a third place or at least be a scattered people among the third places in the world.

    Having just sat through my son's Little League game yesterday I think attendance at sporting events can function as third places. Lot's of informal mixing among lots of different kinds of people at youth sporting events. As for larger venues of spectator sports, if seating arrangements are regular I think pockets of community can definitely emerge in those sections.

    At the end of the day your comments about intentionality are the critical component. Without being intentional and disciplined nothing is accomplished. A great third place can be right on my corner, but if I don't take the time to seek out and maintain relationships nothing comes of it.

    I hope your grand-daughter gets well. And I resonate with the journey you are on. I've been pursuing a "rational faith" for quite some time now.

  16. yeah. i agree. the majority of the times in a coffeeshop I end up doing work. I see it being a third-way for many people at my local shop (they come it... there is an area for kids to play... really ecclectic neighborhood), but if I am honest, I rarely engage in its third-way potential as I sit back, do some work, and don't know many of the patrons.

    This probably goes back to the notion of a third way not just being a place (though that is important) but also a posture of engagement. Thus Hartford Coffee Co COULD be a third way for me, but I often fail to engage it (them) at that level.

  17. I remember reading or hearing at some point about Starbucks' business model centering on creating a third place experience as someone here mentioned. Its model has certainly attracted an incredible amount of business and I have spent a lot of time at their tables both alone and with people shelling out cash for the experience they work to create. Yet I don't think that third places in themselves are sufficient to change the culture.

    There is a Starbucks near where I used to live in Virginia that was consistently packed with East and North African taxi drivers. They had made that cafe their central meeting spot, but the conversation that ensued was more a feature of their home culture than our American culture. I also identify with Jason and his experience in Leipzig. When I lived in France we constantly went to cafes, bars and restaurants for the social experiences. Here in Brazil, where I currently live, I see the same groups of men and women every morning when I walk my dog. They play volleyball, swim, walk, whatever.

    All these stories are to illustrate what I see as the underlying problem that third places can't fix. The problem is the culture. I do not feel comfortable engaging strangers anywhere and I feel like that is the norm for many in my generation. I almost feel like I learned that engaging strangers in a public setting is taboo. If I feel that way then I imagine others do to so we go through life alone out of the fear of the unknown.

    These are just thoughts I'm putting out there. I hope they aren't too much of a ramble. But this series has hit on some issues close to home and issues that underlie the future of interaction in our country. We'll see what lies ahead. Perhaps we can reverse the trend and recapture communities lost to individualism and consumerism.


  18. Interesting thoughts, Dan. I don't see third places as some magic space where change spreads out from. Instead, I see them as places where people can enter into their culture, in the way that they are currently not allowed to, and then the people are altered from within when they have some sort of validation for their existence.

    Which sounds a bit more "poor me" than I meant to. I think ultimately WE are the culture, and yet we have been alienated from birth by this great horrid beast we live within.

    I've been pondering lately about just how much is inherent to human beings. Are we born knowing how to love, or do we only learn to love when we are first loved? I feel like it is the same sort of thing in the culture. Do we learn to talk to strangers when we find ourselves in the culture in places that are safe to learn to do so?

    I don't know if what I am saying makes any sense. Can't seem to convey what I am trying to convey, grrr. :)

  19. Sue,
    Scripture says, "We love because He first loved us." Children who are never loved do not learn to show love - yet they respond to love so quickly! The culture around us does shape us - but what we are is not fatalisticly determined by culture. We can rise above the culture of earth - because the culture of heaven has broken into this world in the person of Jesus.

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