Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Rural Third Places

A friend of mine recently post an article on Facebook about why "third places" are particularly important in rural communities.

For those who haven’t heard of them before, third places are where people meet and socialize outside of their homes (first places) and their work (second places). Sociologist Ray Oldenburg is credited with drawing attention to third places through his influential book, The Great Good Place.
 These are important places both for the ways they bring people together and the way that they foster a sense of community. Third places also serve to introduce newcomers to a community. The entry linked above got me to thinking about third places in communities I've lived in.

When I moved to middle-of-nowhere western Pennsylvania, I had friends who weren't afraid to become regulars at the local hole-in-the wall, a shabby-looking bar owned and run by an old biker and his wife. The main draws were $.70 drafts and cheap but tasty wings (only one variety, the kind with a spice rub). But it was also one of the finer third places I've known. I don't think this is true of all bars--most aren't Cheers. But this place, where the owner once plunked down a large handgun in front of me, I saw a patron in the process of being ejected fling a shot glass at the woman behind the bar, and there was a sign on the door disallowing spitting out the door, this seedy little place was well laid out to be an effective third place.

Why? The place was dominated by a U-shaped bar in the middle of the room, with just a few tables off to one side (plus a pool table and some ancient mechanical game involved metal discs that you'd slide from one end of a lane to another (think table-top shuffle board or curling). But the bar was the thing. Everyone sat around the bar, almost by necessity. So everyone was, more or less, looking at everyone else. It was easy to strike up conversations with complete strangers--and with the bartender too, as she was always in front of everyone. We more or less became regulars and we got to know a lot of the locals that we never would have gotten to know any other way. We taught at a boarding school--an institution of privilege--in a down-on-its-luck community, and that had led to a fairly sharp town-gown divide. Nonetheless, by making ourselves part of this third place, we bridged that divide in our own small way.

Where we live now, the third place that comes most easily to mind is our local coffee shop. Coffee shops seem like natural third places, because people often come to "hang out" there, but there's something about the atmosphere that also makes it easy to strike up conversations with other people there, even strangers. There are also special events there, such as musicians, which serve to draw people there.

Restaurants--and most bars that are set up like restaurants--do not function this way. In a restaurant, we tend to be more isolated. I'm at my table/booth, you're at yours, and we're unlikely to speak to one another. Even with people you know, you often won't speak to them, except maybe a quick hello as you or they leave. Perhaps it's because we go to restaurants for meals, which have a certain formality to them (as opposed to "grabbing coffee"); perhaps it's because of the set-up, with so many discrete tables and booths separated from one another. Whatever the reason, restaurants--nice as they are--tend not to make good third places. I'm sure there are exceptions, but that's how it seems to me.

What are some of your third places, and how do they work?


  1. The one you mentioned is a big one for me, too.

    I like to hang out at the South Bend Farmers Market when I'm up there.

    Some others have been somewhat niche-related, but still a good way to expand your social circle -- yarn shops / knitting groups, a dulcimer club.

    The beach or playground or library -- if you have kids and your kids are with you -- can also make a decent third place.

  2. My third place has defintely got to be church. It's an accepting group of people who don't just worship together on sunday, we also socialize. Coffee hour means food, coffee and talking. Sometimes it's catching up and other times it's meeting new people. It's in a college town, so it's a well educated group. I love them all.

  3. I'm with Helen. As one of our ministers pointed out, community is what brings people to church more than anything else.