Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Lamenting the Loss of Third Places

...in this economy, as this writer does in the LA Times:
It's been two decades since sociologist Ray Oldenburg wrote "The Great Good Place," his homage to "third places" -- neither work nor home -- that help us get through life. "The structure of the urban, industrialized society is not conducive to good human relations," he wrote. "Its high degree of specialization brutalizes many of the relationships people have with one another. The resulting compartmentalization ... leaves individuals ignorant of the 'interests, ideas, habits, problems, likes and dislikes' of those not in their own group." Coffeehouses, corner bars and restaurants free people from "the obligations of social roles and the styles and demeanor with which those roles must be played. Here, individuals may uncork that which other situations require them to bottle up."
But, the better question is, did we ever have them? Sure, you can find the neighborhood hangouts, coffee shops, and watering holes in NYC or Portland, but where else? I discusses the Cheers of Downtown Dallas in this post, the City Tavern. Urban Cafe seems to be another spot because of its coffee, its WiFi, its grocery store, and the bar, but is a little overscaled for the usual quaintness of many Third Places. It remains to be seen how well Opening Bell Coffee does in the Mosaic, but the one in Southside on Lamar certainly operates as a Third Place.

It's critical to note the "urban world" of which Oldenburg writes, for the most part no longer exists, or at least is fading away. The real point is that for third places to be successful, there has to be the framework in place to support them: meaning the density to populate them and the safety to walk to them. Nobody wants to drive to third places.

They have to be convenient. In the ground floor. At the corner. Down the block. They are usually smaller, have to accommodate a unique spatial plan, and combined with the density (and risk), this generally favors locally owned businesses. Locally owned Biz operate better as Third Places than do, say a Starbucks. The livelihood of the owner, the business, and their staff is generally based on repeat customers that they generate relationships with and continue to nurture.

And that's the world we're heading towards.