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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 14, 2017

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Third Places in American Life

Why do you have a lawn?

No, seriously. Why do you want to have this greensward that you must mow, weed (manually or chemically), water (even in our damp climate), and leave generally unused?

Here's why: English country houses.

The wealthy ruling class in England before 1700 was generally dependent on their income from the land. They would collect rents from peasants who worked the land but did not own it. The landlord lived in a large fine house somewhere on his own property, with a clear separation between his household and the surrounding farmers.

But the grounds of the house, while they might be well-tended by a gardener, were part of a large working agricultural enterprise. Therefore, large sweeps of land near the house were kept as meadows, with herds of sheep or goats keeping them well-cropped.

As the idle rich sought more ways to amuse themselves, this close-cut grass began to be used for various functions. Croquet and tennis, when they were imported from France, were fairly easy to situate on a level stretch of lawn. Garden parties took place on tables and chairs set up (by servants) on the lawn.

One of the hallmarks of a great house, as you approached it from the road, was the broad lawn on either side of the trees planted to line the long sweeping driveway. Yes, there were sheep or goats on the grass -- there were sheep and goats everywhere in those days -- but you didn't think of it anymore as a "pasture." You saw it now as a finished product, areas of short grass that we learned to call "lawn."

Skip a century. Wealthy Americans deliberately imitated those English country houses when they built their estates along the Hudson or on Long Island. They had no land tenants; they were not part of an agricultural enterprise. These "estates" existed to house the wealthy family and to show anyone who might come to visit that here dwelt a great man.

Of course they had a lawn -- complete with sheep -- and tennis, and croquet, and whatever else it took to imitate the real upper class in England. And, whenever they needed to come to their other house in town -- for these were not "idle" rich, but men of business who kept their hands in their affairs -- it was a major operation, involving carriages and wagons, and, after they were invented, steamboats and railway trains.

These wealthy estates were the original suburbs -- the homes of people whose work was in town, but whose symbol of wealth was an impractical copy of the practical English country house.

Skip another century. By now, Americans all had an image of how the upper class lived, and those big lawns were part of it. With the growth of urban and inter-urban railway systems, it became practical for people to move out of the crowded city and settle in residential communities near railway stations, so they could walk to the station and ride the train in to town, where they did the work that paid the bills.

What was their motive? Oh, they might explain that they needed to get away from the frantic pace, the crowded streets of the city -- but they weren't doing that at all. They still worked in the city.

No, the suburban life was more of a fantasy they were acting out: Look, I'm wealthy, too. I have arrived. I have a house surrounded by wide lawns. My children play outdoors amid "nature," and I can afford the servants that are required to keep a house and grounds in good condition.

Skip to the end of World War II. A grateful nation demanded that the returning soldiers, sailors, marines, and aviators who had just saved the world be compensated for the economic sacrifice of the most vigorous years of their lives. The GI Bill gave them educational opportunities and affordable mortgages.

And developers, believing that these ordinary joes deserved the same benefits as the well-to-do suburbanites, and knowing that thanks to the Model T, every working family could afford a car, began to create more suburban housing developments.

The houses in each neighborhood were cheap, built to the same plan. The grounds became, not estates, but "yards" -- the word used the fenced or unfenced area immediately around a midwestern farm building -- barn yard, cattle yard, hog yard, farm yard, hen yard, stock yard, house yard.

Each house looked, felt, and was larger than the family's former living space in the city. And the parents of the baby boom generation thought they were giving their children all the advantages that the children of wealthy parents had -- space to play, a connection with the outdoors.

The patterns of suburban life thus began as a symbolic act: The elevation of the middle and working class to the same advantages as the upper class. What could be more American than that! What better reward could there be for the soldiers who saved the world?

Which brings me to The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community, by Ray Oldenburg.

Sometimes there's a book that's so obviously wise and accurate that I marvel that in the twenty years since it was first published, it hasn't already transformed our entire culture.

Then again, it is so closely related to other wise books about our community life that it may already -- slowly, inexorably -- be changing our attitudes toward common institutions.

Oldenburg's premise is that in our move to suburbia, we ignorantly threw away exactly what we thought we were pursuing: A rich community life, a place where we could promote each other's happiness.

Suburbia as the main national place of residence wasn't even twenty years old when we began to hear the cries of the woebegone women and children who found themselves trapped in an isolated prison with lawns for walls.

It wasn't just the lawn-surrounded country houses of the rich that Americans dreamed of. It was also a nostalgia for the small-town life that they were leaving behind.

There is no better document of that dream than the novel Dandelion Wine, by Ray Bradbury. Beloved as Bradbury's science fiction and fantasy were, I think Dandelion Wine is his finest and most lasting work -- in part because it is such a complete and perfect demonstration of the American family's dream of what they wanted their children's lives to be.

Never mind that Douglas Spaulding, the main character, is a boy who is living fulltime with his grandparents for reasons never explained. He lives in a two-story house that is close enough to the house next door that he and his best friend can string a message system between their bedroom windows.

In fact, following the pattern of smalltown life before the advent of zoning, houses were all close together, and while wealthy households often clumped to form avenues of elegance, every house, big or small, was within easy walking distance of downtown businesses, public gathering places, and/or neighborhood shops and services.

Everybody walked to work except the doctor, who kept a carriage or car to make his house calls.

And everybody had easy access to gathering places that were neither home nor work -- places where they would encounter neighbors, people that they knew, who also knew them. Whether it was the old country store, the barber shop, or the corner bar, there was, in every neighborhood, somewhere for people to gather in any weather to find good conversation among familiar people.

The Americans living in the bustling big city thought, by moving to suburbia, they were getting this dream. The GIs who grew up in small towns or on farmsteads thought they would preserve this familiar, though idealized, lifestyle by raising their families in suburbia.

But by now, zoning laws and the automobile were combining to kill every fragment of the Dandelion Wine utopia.

Because people could (and usually did) own cars, the new suburbia didn't have to be as close to the railway stations for commuters. In some cities, like New York and San Francisco, railroads were still vital for carrying workers in to cities whose few access bridges and roads became choke points for car traffic.

But many other cities, especially in the Midwest and West, had so much open land that suburbia could sprawl on every side, with local, state, and, eventually, national governments building roads to let them propel their own private car to work every day.

The zoning masters claimed to be preserving property values when they began to dictate that within this district, lots had to be this or that size -- which, of course, meant that the houses built on those lots had to cost this or that amount.

There were other rules -- e.g., houses in this area had to have a fixed foundation, be situated with a minimum setback from the road, put all garbage cans along the back alley rather than the public street.

Housing for the poor was shunted into confined neighborhoods or mobile home parks, keeping them far from those who might help them learn to live a middle class life.

There were various curb-and-gutter and sidewalk regulations, as well as water, sewage, and power hookup laws. Thus, when you moved to suburbia you knew you would be living with people who made about as much money as you, and everyone would have about the same level of access to what quickly became the necessities of American life.

The zoning laws also relentlessly excluded from residential areas all commercial establishments.

That meant that there was nothing within walking distance of most houses except other houses.

So, sure, you had neighbors and even "neighborhoods" but how, exactly, would you ever meet the people who lived in those houses?

The comic strip Blondie shows Dagwood and Blondie having easy chance encounters with neighborhood kids (Elmo) and parents (Herb), with a lot of tool-borrowing and conversations by phone or in person. But in the real world, the wealthier the neighborhood, the larger the yard and the greater the separation between houses ... and neighbors.

Air-conditioning came along and pulled everybody indoors except when they had an immediate task outdoors -- yard work or a backyard barbecue.

But in many, then most, neighborhoods, neighbors were no longer invited to those barbecues unless it was explicitly a "block party" -- a well-meant attempt to get people together in order to create the neighborhood camaraderie that zoning laws and air-conditioning had broken apart.

Poor people, with houses much closer together and a strong chance of not having a functioning or effective air conditioning system, still had a neighborhood life -- at least, they recognized their neighbors' faces and often knew their children's names. But even they suffered from the complete desert of commercial establishments in residential areas.

There are many economic reasons why malls and big box stores make sense. Because they serve a much larger customer base, each Food Lion, Barnes & Noble, Home Depot, and Footlocker can carrier a far larger and more varied stock than the old neighborhood grocery store, bookstore, hardware store, and shoe store.

But when you go to them -- after committing to a car trip -- nobody really knows you. Every clerk who waits on you is a stranger -- even if you shop there frequently. None of these places has a sense of community about them. You don't expect to see anybody you know at Home Depot or Harris Teeter except by rare chance. You certainly don't go to those stores expecting to run into the regular crowd.

That "regular crowd" is the crux of The Great Good Place.

Oldenburg is one of the pioneers of the "third place" movement. In sports, "third place" means you not only didn't win it all, you didn't even take part in the final playoff game. But in the context of human life in our industrial era, the first place is home, the second place is work, and the third place is the broad category of informal neighborhood gathering places where, as the Cheers theme song wistfully put it, "everybody knows your name."

Oldenburg spends most of the book giving detailed examples of how third places work in almost every culture except our own. In England it's the pub; in France, the bistro; in Austria, the coffeehouse; in Germany, the beer garden. Oldenburg observes that these are usually commercial establishments that provide a pleasurable or ritual beverage, and which are not designed and run with any sense of pressure for customers to pay, drink up, and leave.

Instead, the owners and managers of these beverage vendors promote the idea of lingering, of drinking slowly over a period of hours, and of mingling and constantly interchanging places with other customers. Regulars are recognized and welcomed, but strangers are also welcomed and, if they quickly learn the social rules, allowed full participation in the community that gathers there.

The social rituals attached to such places is so pervasive in each nation's culture that in France, for instance, there are so many bistros that there's one for every eighteen adults. Few of them are large, with large staffs; they aren't making anybody rich and they don't bother to have promotions or come-ons to increase their clientele at the expense of other bistros.

What would be the point? The customers come to this bistro because it's the closest one with decent coffee and passable food, and because it's the one where everybody else in the immediate neighborhood goes if they want to dine or drink coffee in company.

Why in the world would you need a large living and dining room "for company" when there's no need for a dinner party in order to see your friends? You see them any night you want -- at the neighborhood bistro. It's where you go; it's the "life of the street." With tables half-blocking the wide sidewalk, even if you're on another errand, you'll stop and greet people as you pass the bistro because you know them all and they know you.

It's as if you share a living room with the neighborhood and return to your own house to sleep, to eat, to wash. No wonder Europeans put up with smaller houses than Americans do. They don't need as much space because the street and the third place are a vital part of their public lives.

In America, we used to have such places. German immigrants brought the custom of the beer garden, and for a century in many American cities, whole families would go to the beer garden weekly or daily. Of course no one served beer to the children, and serious drinking was frowned on -- as with the English "pint," the single mug or glass of beer was the norm, and drunkenness got you thrown out.

The main entertainment in third places everywhere is conversation, and one reason children and adolescents are encouraged to attend is because this is how they learn to be functioning adults. Official town meetings functioned well in those days because all the issues had already been thoroughly debated in beer garden conversations.

Where do children go now to learn what an adult conversation sounds like? To see neighbors disagree, sometimes vehemently -- and yet remain friends enough to raise a convivial glass together?

A culture with active conversational third places doesn't instantly devolve into vituperation and rage at the first sign that someone's opinion is different from your own. You're used to disagreement leading to vivid but civil conversation; you grew up with it.

But the beer gardens died, partly because all things German became suspect during World War I, but mostly because the beer companies began to take over the beer gardens, make them exclusive to one brand of beer, and then try to make them more commercially successful.

Now when you walk into an American bar, it's generally a silent place where nobody knows anybody else. If there are conversations, they're among groups that arrived together -- people who were already friends, and who do not welcome strangers joining in their talk.

Even in noisy singles bars, the clientele are mostly bar-hoppers who have no more loyalty to a place than most people feel toward a particular McDonald's or Barnes & Noble. Nobody goes expecting to join in with a familiar group that already happens to be there.

In all the episodes of How I Met Your Mother, even with the male characters' relentless pursuit of willing single women, how many times did anyone sit at the main characters' regular table with them, except when they were brought by one of the regulars?

That is not a third place, then, though it might serve some of its functions.

America has killed the third place by actions that were never required or, by most people, desired. City planners made decisions that destroyed the possibility of a third place anywhere in America without consulting the people who valued such places. And now we have two generations or more that have grown up without a third place -- without even knowing that such a place might exist.

Without knowing what a neighborhood, what a local community, really is.

One of the prime ironies is that, as Oldenburg points out, zoning laws created drunk driving. By driving all taverns out of neighborhoods where their patrons might have walked to and from them, as the English and Irish do with their pubs, we require that you can only reach an American tavern by car.

A drunken pedestrian can pose dangers, and certainly risks injury, on the way home. But he's not wrapped in a two-ton killing machine when he does so.

Oldenburg's highly readable book ends with chapters on how specific groups are harmed by the lack of a third place. In particular, he points out that without a third place to resort to, married couples in America are thrown relentlessly on each other as the only possible partner in the pursuit of happiness.

But it's a simple fact that along with (usually) heterosexual pair bonding, human beings need same-sex bonds as well. Anyone who has been part of a women's book group knows that whenever a man is invited to take part, the women no longer feel free to let their hair down and be themselves. And men in (far rarer) men's conversation groups have the same experience when a woman is present. Natural, free-flowing conversation is dead.

Third place generally provide for the voluntary segregation of the sexes -- women gravitate to each other, and men gravitate to conversations with other men.

Without a third place, both husband and wife are starved for conversation with other, less predictable, more conformable people. In other cultures that have third places, marriages are easier to maintain in large part because husbands and wives can get some r&r with members of their own sex at regular intervals.

Anyone who thinks that sexual equality requires that both sexes be together all the time is trying to defy millions of years of evolution; if they try it, they will fail. Men need men's places; women need women's places; and in America, we have precious few of them.

The group most damaged by zoning laws, spread-out housing, air-conditioning, and car dependence are children and teenagers.

Since I had a slightly-modified Dandelion Wine childhood -- wandering the neighborhood with my friends, building forts in the creek beds and crawling into culverts; climbing trees, hopping fences, and balancing along fence-tops; and above all knowing and playing outdoors with neighborhood children in those pre-air-conditioning days -- I was keenly aware of how little of that my children were able to experience.

The chapter entitled "Shutting Out Youth" is the most poignant in the book, because what children need and no longer have is a place where they can freely gather for non-adult-controlled play.

Adult-controlled "play" is not, of course, play at all. The soccer team is just another job, like school, at which they expect to be, and are, judged at all times. Says Oldenburg, "The organizers and schedule-setters are attacking the world of children with an aggressiveness and scope that threaten to destroy childhood altogether."

As for that premier center of childhood scheduling, schools that are now dispensing with recess entirely, Oldenburg points out that "In today's schools ... the abiding concern is with accounting for the location of bodies and not the development of minds. Scholastic progress is checked sporadically but the location of the bodies is accounted for several times daily."

Instead of giving children places and free time to have a childhood, most parents seem to think their main responsibility is to keep their children from associating with any potential peer group, without adult supervision. Change "adult" to "guard," and you can understand why many children show the same symptoms as convicts long incarcerated.

"The kind of recreation that is most important is that which is part of everyday life."

"When youth abuse a facility with graffiti or do other damage, adults are inclined to wonder what's wrong with these kids. Rarely do adults ask themselves what's wrong with the facility."

And children no longer have even the possibility of being a useful part of community life. When I was a kid in Santa Clara, California, on Las Palmas Drive, it was an easy walk to the Lucky supermarket on Homestead Road. Where Stan's Donut Shop now is, there was once a variety store full of wonders -- nothing like a Staples or Office Depot, but there was enough variety that my fascination with pens, pencils, and other office implements began there.

By the time I was eight years old, my mother could give me a couple of bucks and send me to Lucky's for some item needed for the meal she was in the middle of preparing. I could ride my bike or I could walk, depending on how urgent the need was. I went on my quest and I returned with the golden fleece, along with whatever coins I got in change. Maybe I had consumed a penny Tootsie Roll on the way home.

Nowadays, if you leave an eight-year-old in charge of his or her younger siblings while both parents are out of the house, Child Protective Services might be called. But in those days, everybody regarded eight- and nine-year-old kids as responsible enough for errands, for neighborhood-wandering play, and for babysitting (at least of siblings). They were far more autonomous than we allow children to be today.

Says Oldenburg: "The exile of youth from the world of adults still proceeds apace as if nothing can be done to reverse the process.... development. Today's legacy to youth is one of isolation. The American child spends far less time with real people and far more time watching television, listening to the stereo, and talking on the phone." (This book was written just before the smartphone, tablet, and streaming revolutions, but his point is only reinforced by these changes.)

"An earlier generation of parents might not have been fond of the corner store in which their kids hung out like idle bums. But the adults knew where the kids were, and the kids had a place to go."

"How viable, in the long run," asks Oldenburg, "is a society that cannot unite the generations in an integrated community?"

I remember well the night when I was babysitting for some friends of my family, and the parents came home and, instead of taking me home, invited me to play a table game with the adults. I couldn't have been older than twelve (because we moved out of state before I turned thirteen), but I was quickly taught the rules of the Whitman Stock Market Game and played as an equal.

It wasn't in a third place -- Mormons don't go to bars -- but it was in the spirit of bringing young people into ever closer and more equal contact with adults. It made me an apprentice human, instead of a caged and protected alien species.

We have helicopter parents because we no longer have neighborhoods. Because we no longer have enough social mechanisms to automatically and effortlessly acquaint children with the customs and expectations of adult society.

No wonder. Because in America we barely have adult society at all.

Instead we have home, the first place, in which children witness only one adult relationship -- between parents whose bonds are constantly strained by having no other place for adult interactions except on the job.

And we have work, the second place, where non-employees are explicitly excluded, and in which most interactions are shaped by the requirements (and rivalries) of the job, so they barely qualify as adult communities.

Oldenburg's book, The Great Good Place, flips us back and forth between descriptions of imperfect but functioning third places from the American past and the European (and worldwide) present, and explanations of why Americans no longer have third places and what damage it is causing us to lack them.

Where there's room for discussion is to what degree our car-centered, over-zoned culture can create new third places.

Structured activities are, by definition, not third places, so church attendance, service clubs, and gyms, while they offer some benefits of the third place, rarely offer most or all of them.

Yet if we have the ideal of the true third place in mind, and if the owners or managers of these institutions share the vision, might it be possible to create places where we can drive, park, and then have the kind of free-flowing convivial "neighborhood" life that we cannot possibly receive in our neighborhoods?

My house is on a boulevard with a wide center "island" which could easily house a small coffee shop with several outdoor tables; a perfect spot is right across the street from us.

Present zoning laws would require a certain number of parking places, which would destroy the character of the neighborhood. But if we all agreed that this shop was for pedestrians only and required no parking, it could easily become a center of informal neighborhood gatherings at all hours of the day.

Most neighborhoods have sites where a small viable third place on the French bistro or Viennese coffeehouse or English pub model could be built.

But such neighborhood establishments could only be opened if city planners have a complete, deep-rooted ideological change -- or if they are stripped of their tyrannical authority to dictate minute and destructive regulations to neighborhoods against their will. Both are highly desirable changes.

Even if little can be done by individuals -- though our little free library on a post by our mailbox is a small gesture in that direction -- I still recommend that everybody who cares about the quality of American life, for people of every age and status, pick up a copy of The Great Good Place and read it slowly and carefully.

It won't make you dissatisfied with the way we live -- you already are dissatisfied, andThe Great Good Place will only tell you what, specifically, is wrong.

The more of us who read it, the better the chance that we'll find and elect public officials who can make the top-down changes that will allow us, freely and by our own efforts and actions, to create third places again, and discover what it means to live in a local human community.

"The average individual has not yet caught on to the problems of place and still tends to blame other factors for the hardships imposed by bad urban design.... The government of cities is the one conspicuous failure of the United States."


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