A Neighborhood Improvement Journal - Summer 2017

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Where Everyone Knows Your Name

By Mary Newsom


The TV bar, “Cheers,” was a perfect, though fictional, example of one. The Paris café Les Deux Magots was a real one, and it famously drew artists and intellectuals such as Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. If you’re lucky, you live near one, too: a coffeehouse, pub, barber shop or general store where you can visit anytime and linger. You’ll see people you know and people you don’t, and no one makes you leave ’til you’re ready.


Sociologist Ray Oldenburg dubbed them Third Places in his 1989 book, The Great Good Place. He wrote that Third Places (not work, not home) are “the heart of a community’s social vitality, the grassroots of democracy.” But in the U.S., he wrote, we’ve almost lost them, as people spend more time in cars, in shopping malls, or at home in front of a screen.


Earlier this month I spent a couple of days in Toronto at a conference for the Information Architecture Institute, which drew hundreds of bright and creative people interested in the human mind, IT and how they intersect. One social media expert spoke about Oldenburg, and proposed that online social networks such as Facebook and Twitter are America’s new Third Places.


Well, no.


This is a defense of the value of real places where real people meet, and the little-heeded but significant role they play in the life of our cities and towns.


Online networks can, of course, create social and business relationships. Facebook, MySpace and Twitter let people meet and keep in touch, and occasionally in-person friendships flower from Facebook “friending.” Indeed, their popularity may well be fed by the lack of true Third Places in our lives.


Still, as Third Places they’re mere metaphors for the real thing.


A Third Place exists in the three-dimensional world inhabited by the bodies of human beings. Sure, at any hangout what people talk about may sound a lot like their Facebook status or Tweets. But being in another human’s physical presence transforms the relationship. You hear vocal inflections and regional accents and notice whether their teeth are straight or their shoes are shabby. You may even smell them–for better or worse.


Not infrequently, when I meet politicians or other public figures whose opinions I completely disagree with, they turn out to be personable and sympathetic people. (And some turn out to be nutty as a Payday candy bar, but that’s a column for another day.) Meeting in person isn’t likely to change my views–or theirs–but seeing someone in the whole shifts the relationship.


Studies find anywhere from 65 percent to 93 percent of our communication with others is nonverbal–through tone of voice, small expressions and body language. That’s why diplomats meet in person. It’s why the president sits down with foreign leaders.


And it’s one of the reasons that real places–and real public places–matter. “Deprived of these settings,” Oldenburg wrote in his introduction to The Great Good Place, “people remain lonely within their crowds.”


Online it’s easy to mingle only with people with whom you agree. In Charlotte, a reporter recently interviewed Facebook users about their opinions on health care reform and found people on both sides of the issue believed most Facebook users agreed with them.


Americans’ growing tendency to migrate toward communities of the like-minded is the subject of Bill Bishop’s book, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart. And there’s evidence it might be making us ruder.


Research shows that people in groups where all agree tend to become more extreme in their views, while people in groups that disagree become more moderate.


So as more of us retreat into our self-selected opinion bubbles, and more of our public discourse moves online, where those opinion bubbles grow ever more extreme, public debate gets more shrill, more hostile.


By contrast, if you’re lucky enough to have a Third Place, you run into all kinds of people there: your neighbors whose political yard signs drive you bonkers, the Wiccan from the vegan café, people who may not be like you at all except in their liking for this place. Most likely you’ll have at least a small, civil interaction with them. It will not be like the commentary on political blog sites.


Those in-person encounters are essential to life in a city. As both Oldenburg and urbanist writer Jane Jacobs knew, the seemingly insignificant human exchanges among people who aren’t close enough to be “friends” or “family” and need not be invited home to dinner are one of the undervalued characteristics of urban life. Jacobs wrote that while cities are full of people with whom contact is enjoyable, “You don’t want them in your hair and they do not want you in theirs, either.”


In the two decades since The Great Good Place was published, some developers and planners have incorporated Oldenburg’s observations into their work and have attempted to create “vibrant urban villages.” A few are indeed urban, or villages, or upon occasion vibrant. But too many have the well-choreographed ambience of a shopping mall center court instead the plain, unassuming character of a true Third Place.


One evening years ago, my husband and I sat on the steps of the fountain in the piazza at the heart of Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood. Humanity clogged the piazza: families, children, tourists, workmen, women in stiletto heels, waiters moving among restaurant tables, men in suits hurrying past. Some people were not so reputable-looking. One disheveled man dug through the trash bin. A few slept on the pavement next to empty liquor bottles.


No shopping mall security guards would have allowed that range of humanity. Yet their presence created exactly the “little touch of chaos and danger,” as musician David Byrne wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal, that “makes a city sexy.”


Random, but civilized, humanity brings to life a public space as well as a Third Place. And it’s no exaggeration to say that transactions of that sort that occur in a true Third Place–peaceable and in person–underpin civilization.


Maybe I’m wrong, and someday we’ll recall, together, how posting on our neighbors’ Facebook walls brought society together, and helped us solve poverty and conquer injustice.


But somehow I just don’t see it.

Mary Newsom is an associate editor, op-ed columnist and blogger at The Charlotte Observer. Her e-mail is Mnewsom@CharlotteObserver.com.


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