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Where is the third place?

August 15, 2010

There is an 18th-century idea called the ‘third place’ that I’ve been trying to digest properly for years. In this highly transitional time when I’m sliding back and forth through multiple domains (both geographically and project-ly) the idea has propelled itself again.

The theory goes that people in industrialized societies, in order to function as decent, functioning, socialized human beings, need a common place to congregate that is not home or work. This not-home-not-work place becomes their third place, one that I think serves a ‘thick’ function as a socially determined urban object.

In France there is the café, high-minded or cozily simple. In Italy pebbled streets lead to the piazza. In Greece, the taverna; in Ireland, the pub. In highly coastal cities (er, Rio de Janeiro), there’s the beach, often considered the most democratic stretch of public space.

So the question is begged: what is the U.S.’ third place?

Bars? Shopping malls? Cars? (Cars don’t seem like they would technically ‘count.’ While neither work nor home they are common spaces only through individual cohabitation, i.e. your own personal, special pod. More on pods in later posts.)

A highly perceptive friend from Australia living temporarily in the U.S., writes (used with her permission):

I have a friend in town from sydney, I took him to the nyorcian poets cafe for poetry slam. Then we went to a diner. And it hit me… diners are your third place!

American life is much less focussed around the home and family than european life. To the extent where I feel sometimes, I get the impression that it’s BAD to stay at home… because it means you have no friends? Or you’re some kind of loser? I don’t understand but that is the impression I get.

The diner is the midway between the comfort of home and the social atmosphere of the bars. It feels like you can have incredible intimate conversations at 3 in the morning the the safety of home, but safer than home, because a diner is neutral territory. It it the strange but familiar place to stop after driving 10 hours interstate.
I’ve seen countlessfilms where pivotal interactions take place in diners, the most notable being pulp fiction.

The diner is an incredible relic of Americana, and I warm to the idea that it’s a non-threatening midway point between home and work. My Australian friend writes back later:

to clarify: Is yr third place where you go to be yourself (ourside of home and work) or is it the place that unites one nation? [I respond that it’s a common place, i.e. the way a piazza or taverna is a common place.]

I have since spoke to another american who doesn’t agree that the diner is the third place. He says it was in the 50s, but now people don’t go to diners so much anymore….

But, oh. Oh: television.

Is television the North American third place? A semi-virtual sit-in of TV dinners and the Sean Hannity show? A place where manufactured morals and dandruff shampoo ads are simultaneously digested?

Art (‘Despite All the Confusion’) by My Dead Pony.

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