There’s a place in my small mid-western hometown in Missouri that is arguably the most important institution in the county – more so than the courthouse, the plethora of churches, banks, insurance agencies, feed stores, and Walmart. It’s called the White Grill, and it’s a diner that has been open every single day since 1938. It has proudly never cleaned its grill, which is why it has the best burgers you’ll ever taste anywhere. For all of its socio-cultural importance, the White Grill has a surprisingly small footprint; only about five tables and a collection of stools lining the counter. Last I visited you could still smoke inside.
It’s the place where you have a pre-dawn cup of coffee, sign a business contract over suzy-Qs, and meet up after the football game. At the Grill (as it’s affectionately abbreviated) you can see old men debating, friendly reunions, young couples kissing, and borderline respectful arguments of all kinds. Thankfully there’s little room for fisticuffs but if necessary, there’s an obliging train yard right out back. It’s one of the few places in which one can see all segments of the population from infants to the elderly gathered together in a single room, engaging with each other to some degree. In short, it’s where Life happens, and it’s the place that I return to physically and in my mind whenever I feel academically stumped or creatively bored.
I’ve wondered from time to time why such an unassuming place had so thoroughly captured my imagination and inspired me when little else could. Certainly the relationship between creativity and cafes is long and well documented. Originally founded in 1686, Café Procope in Paris’ 6th arrondissement counted Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Diderot and D’Alembert among its regular clientele. The coffeehouses of eighteenth-century London ushered in one of the greatest eras of literature known to the modern west. The cafes in Paris’ Montparnasse district are now famous for enabling the lives and work of artists and writers such as Henry Miller, Sinclair Lewis, Anaïs Nin, Picasso, Man Ray, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald and T.S. Eliot, to name only a few. More recently, San Francisco’s historic Vesuvio Café served as an essential hub for the Beat generation, and was frequented often by Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac, Alan Ginsburg, and Dylan Thomas.
It is clear that, though often un-credited in their time, these spaces provided critical meeting points for the exchange and nurturing of creative processes. But why? What is it exactly about these kinds of restaurants, bars and cafes that seems to nurture creativity far more than any formal institution? And further, as an American now living in Scandinavia, I wonder if these kinds of cozy, creative spaces exist at all?
With these questions in mind, I was thrilled when I recently stumbled across Ray Oldenburg’s book The Great Good Place, where I first encountered the term “third place.” Through sociological research and direct lived experience, Oldenburg helps sketch an outline of the character of the Third Place, and its crucial importance to society as a whole – and I would add, to the creative life of a city. Culturally speaking, the crucial importance of Third Places cannot be overstated. There is a problematic modern belief pervading our cultural sphere that creativity is individual and heroic, when in fact, it is collective. And therefore this informal cultural collective must have a physical space in which to gather, discuss, argue, and form new ideas not previously existent to the individual creator.
Before diving into the crucial importance of Third Places, let’s first try to define what it is; it’s borders and characterizing features.
According to Oldenburg, the first place is the home, the second is a place of employment, and the third is The Third Place, “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 work and home.” 1
- Ray Oldenburg, The Great Good Place, (Da Capo Press, 1997), 15.
- Oldenburg, 13.
Each of these is autonomous and physically separate from the others, with the Third Place requiring no one to play host/guest and where people may come and go as they please. In short, Third Places are interstitial locations in which the full spectrum of humanity can be seen, heard, and enjoyed – a place where people can be most themselves. In previous times, these Third Places were among the most architecturally prominent buildings in a society. Recall the colosseums, forums, public gardens and bathhouses of ancient societies the world over. However as industrialization initiated urban sprawl, these Third Places necessarily became smaller, localized and perhaps even more effective for their human scale. With recent developmental trends however, these Third Places are neither prominent nor prolific, and often lacking altogether. However these essential Third Places do still exist in cities, towns and villages across the globe. Though distinct in their specific appearance and offerings, all share common and essential characteristics. These include neutral ground, mixers, conversation, accessibility, regulars, low profile, and playful mood.
Third Places serve as non-territorial zones. They are neither the occasional uncomfortable intimacy of a home, nor do they contain the professional pretense and competitive nature often found at the workplace. They instead offer a relaxed, un-intimidating environment where very little is required of the guest and the goal, in general, is connection rather than any specific accomplishment. As Oldenburg puts is, a one-time visit to a home is “a poor substitute for the friendly tavern or coffee-counter where one is always welcome. The neutral ground (space upon which one is not burdened by the role of host or guest) of Third Places offers the great ease of association to important to community life.” 3
- Oldebburg, preface, xviii.
Due to their unbiased stance, Third Places often function as mixers or levelers – spaces that even the playing field for anyone who enters, regardless of the economic and political power structures that determine so much of the life and interaction outside of the doors. A worker may sit next to a CEO, a liberal may share a bar with a conservative, and a group of teenagers may take their place in line behind an elderly couple. This is not to say that everyone in a Third Place are friends. But rather that a Third Place is a place where many different kinds of people are able to come into contact with each other. Functionally speaking, these community-friendly meeting places serve as “sorting areas.” According to Oldenburg, “Third Places often serve to bring together for the first time, people who will create other forms of association later on.” This function is the key to creative collaborations, social movements, and political uprising.
Of all of the characteristics of Third Places, it is perhaps the lively conversation that first impresses one upon entering. Conversation of all kinds, from storytelling to political debate, whispered commentary and raucous laughter, is the main activity and the space is set up to accommodate that. Seating will be set up in clusters, lights will often be dim, and music, if present at all, will be low enough not to impede conversations. Employees are not excluded. Rather they are unofficially tasked with instigating conversations and facilitating introductions.
In order for a Third Place to function in society in the ways described above, it must be easily accessible. It needs to be close by, most often embedded in a neighborhood, easy to find and without barriers to entry such as a need for reservations or requirements on dress, or restraints on the amount of time one may stay. Perhaps most importantly, the Third Place offers long opening hours. A Third Place is the go-to place that requires no thinking ahead. It is the natural choice for a variety of social activities.
The convivial atmosphere of the Third Place is created and maintained most consistently by the regulars. According to Oldenburg, “an individual can have many friends and engage them often ONLY if there is a place he or she can visit daily and which plays host to their meetings.” The accessible nature of Third Places ensures a mix of generations as well as demographics. 4
- Oldenburg, preface, xxii.
However not addressed by Oldenburg is the financial expense of going out. Third Places must have regulars to maintain a cohesive community atmosphere. In order to have regulars who represent a broad spectrum of society (artists, curators, writers, and musicians), the Third Place must be also be affordable.
Third Places must also keep a low profile. Physical considerations within the architecture must be taken into account such as human scale, accessibility, and the prioritization of pedestrians over cars. If these communal meeting points are to be entrenched in the neighborhoods that they serve, they can no longer exist on the grand scale of past eras. They now most often consist of relatively small, unassuming yet comfortable locations.
In keeping with the low profile, the mood of the Third Place is generally playful. More than civic duty and sharing of resources (which they certainly facilitate), these places provide fun. Conversation is at times fervent and lighthearted. There are arguments and laughter. …It is rich. It is full of life!
To summarize all of the above characteristics, the Third Place is a home away from home; a living room separate from one’s own private residence. It is a place in which loitering is not an offense, where your face is known after only a few visits, and where humans are more than customers. My hometown haunt, The White Grill, easily fulfills all of these above characteristics, albeit perhaps unwittingly. Its long opening hours, low prices, human scale, central location in the community, bustle and conversation, and wide demographic representation explain why it has been endlessly inspirational throughout my life. And the lack of many of these characteristics in places that I have since lived and worked help to explain the absence of inspiration, connection, and community.
We have now thoroughly outlined the characteristics of the Third Place. But why is there existence crucial in a healthy society? In his introduction, Oldenburg states that, “all great cultures have had a vital informal public life, and necessarily, they evolved their own popular versions of those places that played host to it.” 5
- Oldenburg, preface, ix.
Throughout history these Third Places have functioned as staging areas, places to collect and organize – a place that everyone in the community knows. “Third Place are political fora of great importance. In many countries, the emergent solidarity of labor owed strictly to the profusion of cafes in which workers discussed their common problems, realized their collective strength, and planned their strikes and other strategies.” 6
- Oldenburg, preface, xxiv.
- Fierro, Alfred (1996). Histoire et dictionnaire de Paris. Robert Laffont, 743.
By their very nature, Third Places allow for open access and un-directed interaction. Personally it is this characteristic that I find most appealing. Unlike formally organized spaces that bring together people whom are already like-minded and interested in similar topics or activities, Third Places serve as mixing pots, allowing for integration and the sharing of ideas across set boundaries such as career field or economic status. More locally, these cafes, bars, and restaurants also serve as places to discuss neighborhood development, local philosophies and principles for decision-making, among other issues. Critical issues can be given voice in an informal public arena and the creativity and inspiration of the collective can be called upon.
But where are these places today? As I observe artists sequestered in their own studios or residences, I wonder at what physical location do they come in contact with other creative producers, as well as the public at large that (hopefully) in some way informs their work? Since moving to Scandinavia, I’ve noticed a particular trend towards high-priced, upscale restaurants and cafes, as well as limited opening hours, both of which discourage the daily and long-term attendance of regulars as discussed above. Where are the White Grills of Norway and Sweden? Where are the reasonably priced and welcoming neighborhood pubs, local cafes, and lunch shops? What place would be equally appropriate for an artist to meet a curator, workers to take a coffee break, and friends to share a casual dinner? Certainly not every such Third Place will serve as a nexus for creative production or socio-political revolution, but the possibility for such meetings and their outcomes must continue to exist in order for creativity and community to flourish.
As Oldenburg states in The Great Good Place, “If we valued fraternity as much as independence, and democracy more than free enterprise, our zoning codes would not enforce the social isolation that plagues our modern neighborhoods, but would require some form of public gathering place every block or two.” 8
- Oldenburg, 23.
The means of nurturing community and creative expression can be planned and built into our current environment just as easily as it has been planned out of it. This includes supporting not just the physical buildings themselves but also the business and social models that make these Third Places possible, as outlined above. The need for and importance of Third Places has been demonstrated as critical across all levels: individual, societal, and creative. However with a few notable exceptions, modern development of the cityscape has moved steadily towards more sterile environments less conducive to connection, discussion, and integration. Certainly not every such Third Place will serve as a nexus for creative production or socio-political revolution, but the possibility for such meetings and their outcomes must continue to exist in order for creativity and community to flourish.
Rather than a pat solution, I would like to end with a question. Avoiding the creation industry or interest-specific spaces, how might we help to create and foster these essential Third Places in our own communities? For those working to directly support the arts, we might question what “the arts” really need to thrive? More galleries, museums and exhibition spaces? Or more comfortable, affordable and accessible meeting places in which to gather, share ideas, and create an impactful creative community?