Ray Oldenburg, The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community (1989)
The sociologist who popularized the idea of the "third place" finds what's gone missing from American life
In a 1991 episode of Seinfeld, Elaine frets over the potential consequences of breaking up with an older boyfriend who's just had a stroke. "I'll be ostracized from the community," she says to Jerry. "What community? There's a community?" he asks in response. "All these years I'm living in a community; I had no idea." Though Jerry Seinfeld himself later named this episode as his least-favorite of the series, those lines still deliver one of the most memorable social insights in a sitcom known for memorable social insights. I'm no Seinfeld scholar, but from what I've seen, all its best jokes flatly reference conditions we seldom if ever acknowledge, but that all of us know, on some level, to obtain. Sensing that there is not, in fact, a community, we recognize the absurdity of our continued use of the word in the absence of its referent.
Two years earlier, the sociologist Ray Oldenburg published The Great Good Place. The book would become his best-known work, due not just to its unusual success by semi-academic standards, but also to its popularization of the concept of the "third place." The first place is the home; the second place is the office, the plant, the store, or wherever else one may earn one's wages. The third place, in Oldenburg's words, "is a generic designation for a great variety of public places that host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work," all of them endangered. More concrete categories appear in the subtitle: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community. Such places, to Oldenburg's mind, are necessary — if not sufficient — to sustain public life.
Another American sitcom provides a definition of the third place avant la lettre: as the Cheers theme song puts it, it's where everybody knows your name. But from what I can tell, this was an appeal to nostalgia even when that show debuted in the early nineteen-eighties. By then, few Americans had such a place in their lives, let alone in their neighborhoods, postwar suburbanization having made its remorselessly homogenizing progress for more than thirty years. "Life in the subdivision may have satisfied the combat veteran's longing for a safe, orderly, and quiet haven, but it rarely offered the sense of place and belonging that had rooted his parents and grandparents," writes Oldenburg. "Houses alone do not a community make, and the typical subdivision proved hostile to the emergence of any structure or space utilization beyond the uniform houses and streets that characterized it."