Archive for February, 2010

Saving the World by Hanging Out

February 23, 2010 1 comment

The trouble with conducting business across the Atlantic is conflicting circadian rhythms.  I may for example be winding down with a glass of wine, shivering in an English  cottage besieged by howling winds, while my artist buddy is wide awake, sitting on his balcony in Sunny Cal while his wife makes him lunch.  In these conditions, with the time difference, perspectives may be radically at odds with each other.  For example, one such time Pramada was on the phone jabbering excitedly about ‘The Golden Bough’ – the classic text on mythology – and how it outlined the key points common in all great stories.  Me, I was wanting to go to sleep, and later didn’t recall all these very important points.  Fortunately, one point did remain in my fuzzy brain, and that was how our story of Omni – which was meant to cover life, death and everything and nothing – was missing an oasis, a watering-hole.

It’s true.  Most of the great stories have one, even modern ones.  Think of the inter-galactic bar in ‘Star Wars’, Ten Forward in ‘Star Trek:  TNG’.  Even sitcoms have them.  Think of Cafe Nervosa for Frasier, Central Perk for the ‘Friends’, the bar in ‘How I Met Your Mother’.  And ‘Cheers’….?  Okay, you’ve got me there, I have no idea where their watering-hole was.

Seriously though, in ‘real’ life, the presence of a place in your neighbourhood where you can just drop in and be yourself, whatever mood or situation you’re in, has long been proven to be vital to social and individual well-being.  A professor in Florida, Ray Oldenburg,  dubbed this the third place – the place that is neither your home nor your work – and the term has caught on.  A third place is not limited to somewhere you can go for a beverage – hair salons, libraries, bookshops, corner shops can all provide this essential focal point for a neighbourhood where you’re likely to meet someone you know.  But it is often those that serve refreshments that do particularly well, and they vary from country to country: beer gardens in Germany, soda fountains in the States, sidewalk cafes in France, and pubs in England for example.

An important factor for a third place is that it must be easily accessible.  All the examples above, when they are working well, are accepting to just about everybody if they don’t upset the equilibrium unduly. When they become discriminatory in any way, and people feel excluded from them,  they cease to be third places, and there are many ways this can happen:  You don’t drink enough alcohol, so you’re not welcome.  You don’t dress well enough to fit in.  You can’t afford the prices.  You’re not witty enough.  Or you’re too witty.  Or, at its worst, you’re from the wrong country or race.

In the seventeenth century there were attempts by royalty in Sweden and England to close down coffee houses because they were considered hot-beds of dissent.  In Sweden bogus scientific reports were even created ‘proving’ that coffee was bad for the health.  The problem was, as far as the authorities were concerned, people gathered in these places…and they talked.  Because the range of people in a third place is wide, it means opinions and ideas are being shared from all over the social spectrum, a formidable array of minds.  This is a powerful tool for democracy, so it is clear why those uncertain of their high status may want to suppress any such gathering places.  There is a terror of the truth for those who rely on lies to keep their position in society.

What is deeply disturbing now is the way in which third places are being systematically eradicated. Pubs are closing at a phenomenal rate in the UK, as are independent cafes, bookstores, community centres etc.  Of course, officially it’s the economy doing this, but then it’s amazing how much money is found for token community projects, franchises, supermarkets, malls etc.,  all emphasising superficial aspects of society, such as how much money you can spend or how many boxes you can tick to please the funders.  To add to the frighteners, the official attitude to spontaneous public gatherings – and not just in the UK, this seems pretty much a global trend – is redolent of 1930s Germany.

So the terror of the third place, is the terror of democracy, the terror of having an informed public thinking for themselves.  Far better, think those in power,  to have them brainwashed by television and the media, won over by spin and counter-spin.  Yet ironically even the high and mighty would benefit from an enriched social structure.  We’re all missing out.

So,, where do you go to meet others in your neighbourhood, just to hang out?  Where is your third place?

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