Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Great Good Place

The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and the Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community
© 1989 Ray Oldenburg
336 pages

In Our Oriental Heritage, Will Durant wrote that man is not willingly a political animal, that we do not love society so much as we fear solitude.  As much as I love Durant's work -- the grandness of his historical approach and the rich eloquence of the language with which he expressed it -- here I must disagree with him. We are social creatures at our roots: to borrow from Augustine, we are made for each other, and our hearts are restless until we find companionship together. Such is the lesson of Roy Oldenburg’s magnificent The Great Good Place, which examines the important role of social centers in human lives, discusses the consequences of their decline in the United States today, attempts to account for why they are struggling, and appeals for their resurrection. It is a timely and momentous work.

I’ve long been tangentially familiar with the phrase, “the third place”, which refers to common gathering places for people in their communities, a place apart from home and work (the first and second places in our lives). But here is that phrase’s origin. Oldenburg begins by establishing what the third place is: a site that attracts people and allows for spontaneous meetings between friends and strangers. These places have been ubiquitous in urban environments throughout human history…at least, until the  late 1940s when the United States decided to try a different approach to urban planning, creating ‘sprawls that no longer deserve the the dignity of of being called a city’*.  Oldenburg’s opening chapters document the third place’s vital role in creating a sense of community, in fostering political cohesion and providing a platform for civic engagement. But not only that – they’re fun. People like to spend time together, and giving them a place to do it makes society better and improves our quality of life.After establishing this, Oldenburg then moves on some specific examples:  English and Austrian coffee houses,  French cafes and bistros, American taverns, and main streets. (Although the cover refers to barbershops and salons as third places, the best in his view have been these "watering holes".)  This is a book strongly reminiscent of Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone: the Decline and Revival of American Community, but while Putnam examined the disintegration of American public life at large, Oldenburg zooms in to everyday life.

If the third place is so important, so vital to healthy personal and national life, how have we allowed ours to be destroyed? Hindsight is always perfect vision: in this case, third places are so normal to the human experience that we take them for granted, and only their loss makes us realize their importance. While third places can be destroyed by the short-sightedness of business owners who discourage "loitering" and convert attractive sitting places into yet more display areas, ultimately the problem is foundational: America's urban landscape is atrocious; "badly staged", in Oldenburg's words. Time and again he scolds planners for creating municipalities where no one can walk anywhere, of building pod after pod of "nothing neighborhoods", of abandoning the diverse density of cities for suburbia's lifeless homogeneity.

The Great Good Place is a fascinating combination of sociology and history with a lot of insight. The loss of third places goes beyond people not having a place to have a drink together. One of the consequences Oldenburg explores is that as community life fades as an alternative, people are forced to look for solace on their own, by  attempting to buy happiness in the stores -- and the more they focus on themselves, the less inclined they are to seek connections with other people and the more miserable they are. The fascinating link between alienation and advertising is one of the many gems found in here.

Books like these are why I read in the first place. This isn't a subject of mere academic interest: this is a book that tells us something important about ourselves, with ideas that can change our lives and help Americans concerned about the United States' declining health begin to recover from it.  Although the absence of any mention of the internet might date it (a book like this published today would have to address social networking sites), it's never more timely. Ten years after Oldenburg published this, the New Urbanism movement took off -- and reaffirming and reestablishing community life is at the heart of it. As America's urban pattern is forced to change in recognition of suburban's fiscal failure, I hope when we begin building we keep Oldenburg's insights in mind, and build third places.

I cannot recommend this highly enough.


  • Bowling Alone: the Decline and Revival of American Community, Robert Putnam
  • Suburban Nation, Andres Duany et. al

* A  turn of phrase borrowed from Robert Bellah. Source: "The Ethics of Polarization in the United States and the World," The Good Citizen.

* A  turn of phrase borrowed from Robert Bellah. Source: "The Ethics of Polarization in the United States and the World," The Good Citizen.

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