H. L. Mencken once called his local Baltimore tavern “a hospital asylum from life and its cares.” This quip is partly a joke about alcohol as medication. But it contains a more serious point that’s worth considering, particularly in the wake of COVID-19.
For Menken, the “quiet refuge” from life and its cares lay not in the bottle but in the place he frequented in communion with others. It is not something that could be mixed up in a “to-go” cup or delivered via DoorDash. But increasingly, today, we turn to convenience instead of in-person encounters. The pandemic lockdowns forced us to sever our connections to gathering places where we met friends, including neighborhood or community places like churches, bars, restaurants, cafes, barber shops, beauty salons, parks, museums, and libraries. People had to stay home, so we did, and tried to bring outside amenities indoors.
Conventional wisdom holds that the future is virtual, flexible, remote, and untethered from the limitations of time and place. And while Mad Men’s Don Draper insists that “change isn’t good or bad; it just is,” we suggest that this untethering is bad for people and bad for society. Just as closing down a real “hospital asylum” harms people’s physical or mental health, shuttering local gathering places threatens people’s social-emotional health and undermines our society’s wellbeing.
As we recover from the lingering effects of the pandemic shutdown, our healing should not only be measured by increased economic production, lifting mask requirements, or unrestrained travel. It must include a return to “third places,” civil society’s relaxing and engaging institutional gathering places that foster social connections.
The Goods of Third Places
In a way, we are covering well-trodden ground here. Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone famously laments the demise of associational life in the United States, and with it, the decline of social capital. Charles Murray’s Coming Apart suggests that this decline has particularly wreaked havoc on the lower classes, leading to widespread alienation and anomie. And Timothy Carney’s Alienated America underscores how churches and civic organizations play a profound role in preserving strong communities in which people flourish.
But third places offer something distinctive in civic life. American sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the term “third places” in his 1989 book, The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community. These informal gathering places in culture and society offer a welcome escape from home (the first place), and work (the second place). Third places are neutral places we visit voluntarily, where conversation is one of the main activities. Because they lack membership requirements, social differences are often leveled and left outside the establishment. In small towns, especially, third place associations can be spread along Main Street, including a rich sidewalk life. Oldenburg provides many examples of third places, including German-American beer gardens, French cafes, and English pubs. People instinctively grasp why third places are attractive—even today when everything from work to dinner and a movie is either done from home or delivered to our doorstep. Granted, there is a consumerist gloss to some of the third places’ appeal. But properly understood, third places are defined not by transactions or consumption but by the chance to linger with each other in civil society’s living room.
For starters: Third places help us form close friendships and increase our civic involvement. In this respect, they are the necessary counterbalance to modes of living that are increasingly atomistic. Consider the isolation of the car-driving, home-owning suburbanite in contradistinction to the tenement-dweller of old. For better or for worse, the latter’s life was spent in close physical proximity to others. Today’s denizen, in contrast, is a high-tech hermit. Friendship is most often born of some sort of mutual dependence and shared horizons. Third places offer the social treasures we gain by interacting with others, what experts call place capital.
Third places are one of the formal assets or anchor institutions that compose the social infrastructure of a community. They create a physical space that is organized and includes rules, rituals, and activities that individuals accept or reject. In third places, for example, there are norms that govern how patrons greet each other, where they sit, or the cheers they use as they watch their favorite sports team. Third places create a normative context that conveys important personal meaning to those who participate, generating a collective identity that attaches patrons to that place, neighborhood, and community. What can’t be purchased, delivered—replicated “at scale” for the sake of convenience and efficiency—is this sense of belonging that third places provide and that ministers to some of our deepest human needs.
Unfortunately, the drive for maximal efficiency and convenience has impoverished the fabric of our daily lives. As we forget the value of place, we occupy increasingly thin, homogenized, placeless environments. The role we can play in these sterile settings is only one of consumption, not citizenship. It’s not hard to see the massive upswing of political polarization as a consequence of such placeless lives: Political activity consists mainly in consuming information that caters to our biases; fellow citizens are reduced to avatars of wrongheadedness and idiocy, rather than people whose lives are imbricated with our own.
Writing about his hometown historical society, writer and avowed localist Bill Kauffman describes the profoundly humanizing effect of inhabiting shared projects and spaces: “I have seen Assemblies of God church elders work side by side with very out gays in the cheerful labor of neighbors because they come to know each other as rounded, multi-dimensional persons. This is simply not possible on a mass scale, or with tv or the internet as intermediary.”
The benefits of third places don’t just lie in broad assessments of civil society. On an immediate level, they serve to connect us with different people and their social networks, overcoming our natural tendency to polarize or self-select into groups like ourselves. A report from the Survey Center on American Life explains: “Americans who live in areas packed with [third place] neighborhood amenities . . . tend to report having a more racially and religiously diverse set of friends and acquaintances.”
Third Places in Practice
In a way, the gestation of this article is more than half a century in the making. For one of us (Bruno Manno), learning the importance of third places came not from Ray Oldenburg but from childhood experience. (We will set aside the first-person plural accordingly.)
From an early age, I grew up and worked in a bar. It was an Italian tavern owned by my grandparents called the Golden Gate Inn, located on the east side of Cleveland, Ohio in the Collinwood neighborhood, a mostly Italian-American area. In my earliest memory of the Golden Gate Inn, I’m four years old. I carried a bottle of beer to a thirsty patron. He gave me a penny tip. Eventually, I helped with everything except cooking meals. That was Grandma Gattozzi’s solemn duty.
We lived right there. Our two separate family apartments were above the tavern and an adjoining third place, a hair and beauty salon operated by my Aunt Babe. She dyed her hair purple, serving as a poster child for her business. Her given name was Claire, but Babe was more accurate. Her patrons were mostly from the neighborhood. While conversing on all matters of concern, they could, for example, have their hair colored and styled, nails and toes painted, and bodies massaged to alleviate their aches and pains. Aunt Babe also had arrangements with two nearby funeral homes to assist with their efforts to ensure the departed looked their best.
Two groups frequented the Golden Gate Inn, which we called “the joint” or “the place.” Neighborhood regulars composed the first group, arriving after dinner to talk and drink. They were mostly Italian-American men with quirky but affectionate and often clever nicknames bespeaking personal idiosyncrasies.
These locals nursed glasses of homemade Italian wine or cold bottles of Pilsner of Cleveland, or POC. Wives and children often arrived later, congregating in their own circles while enjoying their own appropriate beverages. Occasionally, as a summer treat, children were allowed to walk on their own to Dairy Queen for soft-serve ice cream.
The second group of regulars were mostly factory workers, men from different racial and ethnic backgrounds who worked in the nearby manufacturing plants. They arrived around 4:00 p.m. on weekdays on their way home from work, striking up conversations over the same drinks as the neighborhood regulars.
Then there were the newcomers, or strangers who wandered into the place. These too were welcome, but not every newcomer graduated into a regular. “Sometimes wine juice turns out to be vinegar,” my grandfather would say.
The tavern jukebox played music, rock and roll or hits from the great American songbook. You could often hear the cracking sound of spinning pool balls hitting each other and the double ringing sound from the shuffleboard bowling game. The hum of conversation ebbed and flowed with the clock as regulars and their families came and went. To me, it always sounded like home. I think the regulars would have said the same.
In recollecting this bygone era, we don’t want to fall into the trap of romanticizing third places or looking back to the good old days for how to do this. The Golden Gate Inn and Babe’s Beauty Salon closed their doors for the last time in the late 1970s. The regulars have all grown old, long since moved on, or departed this life.
And yet places like these speak powerfully to what so often goes missing in our world today—and can serve as inspiration for what a healthier society must encourage and include. It is clear that the good they offered was more than just drinks and beauty care. For why else would locals come back, day after day, and linger long after the food was finished and the glasses empty? One need not surmise too much about the daily life of factory workers on the east side of Cleveland to conclude that they found at the Golden Gate Inn a vital source of fellowship and community.
Third Places Today
Local establishments like the Golden Gate Inn and Babe’s Beauty Salon suffered greatly during the pandemic. But third places have been under duress for quite some time. In recent decades we have made far too many sacrifices to the twin gods of “efficiency” and “convenience,” at the expense of local, place-bound goods. Efficiency calls for economies of scale; convenience stipulates that we must have access to what we want, when we want it, without having to deal with our fellow citizens or their pesky limitations.
We venture that the path toward a better life might begin by leaving your couch and getting a pint at your local tavern. That if we desire a less polarized, less atomistic, less despairing society, then the time has come to rebuild and re-inhabit third places in which people can mingle and linger in community. As Americans emerge from the disconnections brought on by pandemic hibernation, we must rediscover third places and the connections they offer.
Perhaps this sounds frivolous. But make no mistake. It is serious and challenging work. It asks us to reject what’s most efficient, set aside what’s most convenient, and voluntarily spend time in the company of others—“characters” though they be. But it’s work that’s worth doing. Not so that little boys can earn penny tips carrying a cold one to a thirsty patron, but so that workers, neighbors, and families have a place—like the bar sung about in the TV series Cheers—“where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.” Such places give us a sense of place and purpose in society. These venues of association keep communities strong.