The vanishing 'third places'

Dan Rodricks

September 16, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

"America does not rank well on the dimension of her informal public life. . . . Increasingly, her citizens are encouraged to find their relaxation, entertainment, companionship, even safety, almost entirely within the privacy of homes that have become more a retreat from society than a connection to it."

-- Ray Oldenburg, in

"The Great Good Place" The author I quote, no sentimentalist, thinks the nation -- your city, your town -- was a lot better off when there were more diners, more coffee shops, more neighborhood taverns, more corner grocery stores. These served as important "third places," away from home, away from work, places where people gathered, where a community got to know itself.

A recent column relating the closure of a popular northeast Baltimore tavern prompted a good deal of sighing -- not because it meant one less port for drunks who travel Harford Road, but because it meant the breakup of a large and diverse gang of people for whom stopping at the tavern was ritual. It meant one less place for people to meet, to gab and to be heard.

And it reflected a trend that has been with us since shortly after World War II. Americans love their booze as much as ever; they just drink it a whole lot less -- 60 percent less, according to the Wall Street Journal -- in public places.

It's not just the disappearance of taverns that concerns Ray Oldenburg. It's the disappearance of the personal exchanges that occurred in them -- and in diners, and in corner stores, and in beauty parlors, and at a million different places along the streets of the old neighborhoods.

In Baltimore, where we make much of the strength of our neighborhoods, the togetherness inherent in them might have become as anachronistic as the corner tavern. I look at pictures of the rowhouse neighborhoods of Baltimore in the 1940s and 1950s, and I see men, women and children gathered on sidewalks. Those were the days before air-conditioning brought everyone inside, before TV started to eat six to eight hours of night, before the explosion of surburbia took millions of people out of the cities.

Ray Oldenburg is right about a lot of things, among them the idea that modern life is an increasingly isolated existence. Instead of stopping at the neighborhood tavern, we head home and turn on the television to watch "Cheers," the weekly chronicle of a bar where "everybody knows your name." Part of the reason for the popularity of "Cheers" is that it's about an America most of us like but few of us experience. Oldenburg says that, in reality, few of us have a place -- outside of home, outside of work -- where everyone knows our name.

The lack of "third places," as Oldenburg calls them, has contributed to our discontentment. "Our comings and goings are more restricted to the home and work settings," he says. "A TTC two-stop model of daily routine is becoming fixed in our habits as the urban environment affords less opportunity for public relaxation. Our most familiar gathering centers are disappearing rapidly."

I've heard many a man and woman over 40 say: "People just don't get together like they used to."

They are speaking of a time when life wasn't so rushed, when people didn't live these isolated, bedroom-to-rat-race-back-to-bedroom lives. It was a time when people got together after work to discuss the day, the news, the secrets of life. It was a time when a person could walk -- not drive -- somewhere and count on meeting several of the people he knew. This isn't nostalgia. Rather, Oldenburg makes the case that we were a better society when we gathered informally. The lack of gathering places is "pushing the individual toward that line separating proud independence from pitiable isolation."

You can praise a neighborhood tavern for its stock of beer, but more profoundly for its stock of people. It probably is no longer socially correct to suggest that American society would be better off with more public places to consume liquor. But Oldenburg is saying we lose when people do not have places to meet and mingle. The tavern is just one example.

Whatever happened to drugstore soda fountains and department store lunch counters? How many of us take time to claim a "third place" as a hangout? How many of us know the names of our butchers and produce sellers? How many of us "own" a corner of a deli or coffee shop or diner, and meet our friends there regularly? How many of us have a Great Good Place?

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