Author’s note: In his work, The Great Good Place, urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the term “third place” to define public social settings where locals regularly gather in safety for conversation, connection and a sense of home away from home. Although we all yearn for shelter and meaningful employment, third spaces address another basic need — they connect us to each other and foster democratic instincts among the local community. It’s tempting to perceive these havens as vanishing ideals, but this series guides you on a journey of discovery through Wheeling to show that third place living is alive and well at a street corner near you.
These days a good hangout is hard to find. Decades of suburban sprawl, the rise of the automobile industry, and the ever-present reach of the American interstate system have often left main street life in the dust. The sheer number of big-box stores, gobble-and-go drive-throughs and hours of daily commuting would have many believe that this prefab life the new normal.
However, the gnawing sense of isolation and detachment from others around us never really stops, does it? Stick around in the Ohio Valley long enough, and it becomes easy to recall some parking lot that was once a paradise. As it turns out, there is a name for this struggle. What we are talking about is America’s endangered “third place.”
THE SOCIOLOGY OF THE THIRD PLACE
Urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg put his finger on this communal loss in 1989 when he coined the term “third place” in his work, The Great Good Place, to distinguish public social settings from home life (the “first place”) and work environments (the “second place”). He celebrated third places as local haunts: cafes, bars, salons, libraries or any other easily accessible social space where regulars safely gathered for good-natured conversation, playful humor and a sense of home away from home.
Down through the ages, these third spaces have filled a need very different from shelter or employment: they connect us to each other, serve as pressure valves from home- or work-related stress and humanize those strange others who nevertheless share the community with us. You could make the point that third spaces serve a democratizing political function in that they ease us into relationships with each other. Simply put, third spaces aid us in feeling better about ourselves, others and life in general.
Oldenburg understood the interpersonal richness that various cultures down through history have derived from cultivating this sense of place. In particular, he highlighted a variety of civic fixtures that served such a function, such as the German beer garden, the English pub or the French café. These local gathering places represented shining examples of how other countries created third places, which he asserted were necessary for the health of civic engagements and healthy democratic societies. In some ways, main street fixtures like the barber shop, the general store or the late-night diner represented an American iteration on this theme.
Unfortunately, Oldenburg also postulated that after World War II, third places in the United States began to decline as growing numbers of suburbs, automobiles and highways now fostered a more insular, solitary and fragmented style of living. He proposed that Americans “do not have that third realm of satisfaction and social cohesion beyond the portals of home and work that for others is an essential element of the good life.” For some time now America, it seems, has been losing its sense of place.
ATTRIBUTES OF THIRD PLACES
Yet all is not lost, especially if you reside near downtown Wheeling. If you walk its streets, read its books, sit in its bars or drink its coffee long enough, you begin to feel a soulish connectedness to those around you. People have been here a while. They have history. They have survived. They commune with a shared knowledge. They have a sense of belonging. This gut feeling raises the question: what makes for a high-quality third place around here? I’m glad you asked! In what follows, I would like to briefly highlight what Oldenburg identified to be distinguishing features of third spaces. If you look close enough, you might begin to notice them. Keep searching a little longer and you’ll find yourself drawn into them. Here is what they look like:
Third places represent a neutral ground. This means that there are very few expectations saddled upon those present. You can simply be there without agenda or purpose. You do not have to be “on.” You do not have to bring your A game. Just be yourself.
Third places are levelers. Position, rank and title carry little weight in this setting. These environments exhibit an inclusiveness for the general public such that no one is excluded. Furthermore, while we naturally tend to surround ourselves with people similar to us, third spaces encourage us in the opposite direction by expanding our social horizons, not constraining them.
Conversation is king. Enthusiastic, engaging, warm conversation is the chief purpose of third spaces. Topics commonly discussed gravitate toward general interest, not self-absorbed niche monologues or pedantic instruction. Opinions are frankly expressed but take care not to hurt others’ feelings. There is an overall verbal “turning toward” that unfolds as participants seek first to hear before being heard, and they do so easily in the confidence that they too will be afforded an audience.
Ease of accessibility makes fending off loneliness easy in a third space. Individuals seeking connection know that they can access a third space with little effort. Timing and physical location are clutch for a third space to thrive, which means that these environments are (1) open during hours when most people are free to stop in and (2) centrally located, typically within reach on foot or some other form of public transportation. “Getting there” represents another form of demographic inclusion.
The regulars make a third space come alive. A group of people simply remains a lonely crowd without a critical mass of regularly recurring attendees present to welcome newcomers with contagious enthusiasm and bonhomie. Additionally, the old regulars serve the additional function of transforming visitors into new regulars through a process of trust and acceptance.
Third spaces are often unassuming or have a low profile. Oldenburg observes that there is a “protective coloration” to many of these environments, which first appear unassuming, plain or homely to the uninitiated. In some ways this presentation must be so in order to draw in a broader spectrum of community — newer, shinier establishments tend to draw transient customers looking only for products or services, while seedier appearances suggest a level of threat that may repel some would-be visitors.
The mood is playful. You are not allowed to take yourself too seriously in a third space. The rest of us don’t have time for that nonsense. Joy, acceptance, mischief and play — all of these things take priority over that which smacks of pretention, goals, achievement or aspiration. In some ways, third places quietly subvert the impulses of those who think too highly of themselves.
Third spaces offer a sense of “home away from home.” Even though it serves a public function, a third space leaves the individual with a sense of rootedness. Extended absences are noted. People wonder where you went. Some regulars even act like they own the place! Most importantly, people leave a third space feeling restored, uplifted or regenerated. You could even argue that sometimes households, that is, “first spaces,” are enhanced where their members have third spaces available to them to “blow off steam.”
WHEELING AND THE SEARCH FOR THIRD SPACES
It is my firm belief that life finds a way, that third places are still more common than they seem, and that Wheeling does third places better than you might think. In fact, as you read about the attributes of third spaces, one or two locations may have already come to mind for you. I would even argue that all of the time-honored, weather-beaten features and history of this friendly city make it fertile ground for third spaces, both new and old.
It is my hope that in the coming weeks you will allow me to take you on a journey through your own backyard to discover what you already have. Come along with me as I point out a few third spaces in all of their glory. Maybe there’s an old, much-loved part of town with more backstory than you knew existed. Or perhaps it’s a weird new thing that kids are doing these days. History does have a way of repeating itself, after all. My desire here is to bear witness to third spaces in all of their glory, and that the seeing of them leads to their cultivation. What do you say? Are you in?
• Phil Gable is a psychologist, veteran and Army Reservist with a history of one deployment to Afghanistan. Despite growing up in Kennesaw, Georgia, he likes to think of himself as having “married into” the Ohio Valley where his wife grew up. He is a graduate of Georgia Institute of Technology, Georgia State University and Fuller Theological Seminary, where he completed his doctor of philosophy in clinical psychology. When not shamelessly navel-gazing or sipping bourbon, he likes to pursue hobbies such as writing, reading and running. Phil considers Wheeling the perfect place to do all of these things, and can occasionally be found hiding out in the comic book section of the library downtown.