Saturday, December 03, 2005

Third Place Commons

My reading at Third Place Books last night came off well, but that's not the news. The news is what the name of that bookstore means. I had wondered if it was a self-deprecating crack as in, "We're not even in second place, but shop here anyway." An odd name for a bookstore. But after the reading, I asked Megan, my bookstore host, for an explanation, and she refered to the owner's allegiance to the idea that a community needs a commons to freely meet and build social bonds. I remembered at once the theory and realized that the bookstore was only part of the plan, that the real Third Place was the area I had passed coming in, what I took to be a food court. Here's a gloss from the site

"Social condensers" -- the place where citizens of a community or neighbourhood meet to develop friendships, discuss issues, and interact with others -- have always been an important way in which the community developed and retained cohesion and a sense of identity.

Ray Oldenburg (1989), in "The Great Good Place", calls these locations "third places." The first being the home and the second being work. These third places are crucial to a community for a number of reasons, according to Oldenburg. They are distinctive informal gathering places, they make people feel at home, they nourish relationships and a diversity of human contact, they help create a sense of place and community, they invoke a sense of civic pride, they provide numerous opportunities for serendipity, they promote companionship, they allow people to relax and unwind after a long day at work, they are socially binding, they encourage sociability instead of isolation, and they make life more colourful. Their disappearance in our culture is unhealthy for our cities because, as Oldenburg points out, they are the bedrock of community life and all the benefits that come from such interaction.

I can't eat before a reading, and so we had planned to dine afterwards, and we entered the commons, a large space which on a Friday evening was crowded with about 200 people of all ages seated around tables. Some were eating, some playing board games (which were freely available) or cards or just visiting with each other. There was a 10-foot square checkerboard carpet with dog-sized chess pieces in play. A little nook where dozens of teen-agers were engrossed in some kind of multi-player card game. Lots of happy noise. What had first made me think this was a food court, the ring of food counters surrounding it, was on closer inspection, unique in that there were no franchises, at least none that I recognized. A real Mexican restaurant, not Taco Bell. Oriental, pizza, etc. The feeling was that these restaurants didn't own the space, as in a mall food court. You didn't need to purchase your right to sit on a chair. Rather, you could bring your own meal, if you wanted, and hang out as long as you like.

My party (Cindy Ward and Joe Murphy, Nancy and John Lee, Curtis) and I took our meals at a wine bar just as a free musical concert was starting on the stage. A grand, wonderful way to spend a Friday evening. How I long to have something like this in Fairbanks.

Ten years ago or so Fairbanks residents were given an opportunity to build such a Third Place commons. Four or five community center plans were floated, and a commons plan was among them and was the one I voted for. But the vote went for the "multi-purpose" stadium, the Carlson Center, where hockey games, musical concerts, and home product shows are held. Pretty much all business and not a place anyone goes to in-between events. The closest thing we have to a Third Place, IMO, is Fred Meyers where you can meet friends in the grocery aisles.

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