My Word's

a weekly column by
Marylaine Block
vol. 5, #30,
March 6, 2000


And everybody wants to be special here
They call out your name loud and clear
"Here comes a regular."

The Replacements

The real story of the 20th century may be, "Oops," that is, all the accidental damage caused inadvertently by our inventions and built landscapes and well-intended laws. Maybe the greatest "Oops" of all has been the damage done by developers who build towns without beating hearts, towns that aren't communities but merely side-by-side houses, without any corner grocery stores, neighborhood ball parks, taverns, public buildings, or any other natural gathering places. Assuming everybody would drive where they needed to go, get what they wanted, and climb back in their cars, the developers didn't create places where people could linger and chat; they didn't build around an accessible core of shops and services and public space.

One of the things that got lost in the process is what Ray Oldenburg calls "the great good place," that convivial neighborhood tavern or restaurant or drugstore or main street "where everybody knows your name," that place where people of different ages and genders and interests can casually gather, talk, laugh, and get to know each other.

In Dixieland Thought I wrote about a place like that, the faculty/staff dining room at my university where priests and professors and clerks and librarians and vice-presidents sat and chatted together over lunch. But I suspect that in larger colleges professors talk only to other professors, or worse, that English professors talk only to other English professors, or worst of all, that postmodernist English professors wouldn't be caught dead talking to mere composition teachers (and the Cabots speak only to God).

Oldenburg says social life in most societies rests on three elements: home, work, and the "third place" that is neither, and when we mindlessly destroy the third place -- the beer garden, the piazza, the soda fountain or sidewalk cafe -- we end up expecting home and work to fill the gaping hole.

The trouble is, neither work nor family can possibly fill our need for novelty, for playful conversation with people whose thoughts are not already well-known to us, for talk that gives birth to new ideas, for undirected flowing chat that is not directed toward solving work and family goals. They can't foster fledgeling romances by offering places where young people can run into each other accidentally on purpose. Nor can they serve our need to escape from the limited roles that have been assigned to us in our day-to-day lives, whether these be "geek" or "jock" or "just a housewife." And if we have no place to go to escape the strictures and confinements of companionship with people we might not have chosen (annoying co-workers, or our whining offspring at their worst), we may come to resent them.

We do, of course, have malls and bars and restaurants galore, but they are not public gathering places so much as public spending places. As long as the goal is always to move product, people who chat too long and consume too little are not made to feel welcome. Bar owners discourage conversation with music, knowing that loud and annoying rock makes people drink more and faster.

And yet our need for thoughtful, playful conversation remains, as does our need to see the world just a little differently through the minds of people who are not entirely like us. How are we filling these needs in the absence of a "third place"?

I'm wondering if the appeal of late night TV talk shows is that they fill some of those needs for us. Here, famous people, strangers to us and maybe to each other, gather together with an amusing host whose job is to put them at ease, help them reveal interesting things about themselves, encourage them to sparkle, as we all might like to do in company. Here we see some of the casual jokes, the twitting but friendly acceptance of difference that we might once have found in a neighborhood diner. Here too, social conventions require people to check their hostilities, gloom and self-importance at the door and dedicate themselves to egalitarian joshing friendliness.

I wonder whether chat rooms and discussion groups on the net might also have moved in to fill that gaping hole in our lives. Some such groups are oriented around small passions our family and friends might mock us for, like model railroading, and some are modeled around common problems our immediate families can't fully understand, like the networks of cancer survivors. But there are wider groups, too, like the Well ("a literate watering hole for thinkers from all walks of life"), or the forums at the women's site, iVillage, whose membership includes all races, ethnic groups, age groups, gender, educational levels and social classes.

There's much to be said for that, as there is for the friendships one can make when people visit your web site and start writing to you -- one of the closest friendships I've ever had began that way. After all, when we meet on the net, we are meeting mind to mind, without the normal impediments of geography, appearance, race, and status getting in the way. The net's anti-geographical nature makes it easier to let our true selves come out of hiding, because we won't have to live and work alongside anyone who doesn't much like what we've revealed. It's very possible to become a regular in a congenial group on the web.

That's one reason I don't put much stock in all the studies about how the net isolates people from the real people around them. Yes, the net can become an all-consuming passion for some, but for many of us, I think it makes up for the systematic elimination of great good places from our towns.

We need those third places, because they enlarge us. Whether they occur in real space or cyberspace, our conversations there allow us to play with ideas and language, and think in ways that never occurred to us before. The conviviality of the third place lingers with us after we've gone home or logged off, leaving us feeling good about humankind. From trust that is fostered there, larger things may grow -- food drives, volunteer fire departments, junior achievement, third party reform movements...

But our friends on the net, scattered all the hell over the place, can't help us repair the small bit of space we actually inhabit, and it's this place that we have apparently stopped fighting for, accepting in its place the privatizing of public pleasures. New houses have grown ever larger because they now contain the washer and dryer that make it unnecessary for us to go to laundromats, the exercise equipment that makes it unnecessary for us to visit gyms, the video games that make it unnecessary to go play pinball in local stores and bars, the home entertainment systems that make it unnecessary for us to go to movies or concerts, the quarter acre lots that make it unnecessary for us to so much as go out to take the dogs for a walk.

If we want to make our own space worth living in, we need a physical third place where we can come to know the folks who live nearby. We'd have to insist that towns be more than row after rows of houses, that they must be filled with community gardens, corner lots where kids can start pickup games, wide sidewalks with benches, and restaurants where people are allowed to linger over their beer or coffee. We might have to fight zoning laws in order to create such spaces, but that's a battle well worth the effort. We NEED places where we can be regulars, greeted with jokes when we arrive, missed when we fail to appear.

Otherwise, what are we but alone, lost inside our houses?

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