People love to talk about the big issues of our time with large, sweeping policies and movements. Gun control is such a hot-button issue because of mass shootings, and according to President Trump, taking action and building a border wall is a national emergency. It is an almost romantic view of culture that leads us to think this way, that things bubble under the surface until they erupt and show themselves to the public.
This paradigm is powerful, but it denies the more mundane aspects of our lives that are nonetheless important. These are the issues that we deal with every day; they may annoy us all a little, and they can even make life sizably worse, but they aren’t in-your-face bad enough to drive people to change them. The problem with just living with this mild discontent, though, is that this is an issue that brings us down every day!
So far, when talking about public and private issues, I have brought up such larger-than-life issues. These are important. Just as important, though, are the small ways in which the private sector oversteps its bounds into our life. With that, I wish to bring the issue of American “third places” to light.
Third places as a term was coined in 1989 by Ray Oldenburg, who posited that our social interactions are divided into a few categories based on the type and setting. The home is the first place and is reserved for intimate, deeply personal relations. Work is the second, where we are “forced” to socialize with our colleagues. The third place is more amorphous, though. These can range from parks and libraries to cafes and bars. Basically, third places can be thought of as the places where we choose to spend our time, as well as where social communities are built.
With this in mind, we can examine how third places fit in a public-private framework. While public and private communal spaces exist in our society, not all third places are made equal. In fact, the encroachment of private groups on these third places is one of the greatest threats to American society.
This is an issue that is difficult to see from a distance but makes itself all the more apparent the closer you look. Consider Storrs Center. While the idea of a town center is attractive to many—a place to meet new people, enjoy a day with friends or even go on a date—Mansfield has not succeeded in building such a place. Instead, we have a drab, sterile square surrounded by a labyrinth of business. At such private third places, community members are quickly shuffled in and out to make room for new customers. Any sense of community is an excuse to market to the patrons, a point made all the more clear by recent news of prohibitive parking regulations.
Of course, this isn’t to say that no authentic community can be built from private groups. I myself have fond memories of eating and playing cards at the local businesses here. However, never have I thought about going to one of the three Starbucks in an attempt to socialize. Never have I gone to the Dunkin’ Donuts expecting a sense of community. Of course, having businesses like those are fine, but when there is no alternative place to just spend time at, the whole development begins to feel a little cold.
And this is where we see the problem with allowing our third places to be managed in such a way. When the underlying current of the setting is based in profit, it shuts out the ability for authentic communities to form there. Furthermore, it shuts out potential voices in the community, namely those of lower socioeconomic status. The result is as Storrs Center would suggest: a slow decay for the place and a heightened sense of isolation for everyone involved.
This is where things become an issue for us. When there is no forum for public discourse and community-building, there is no sense of unity tying groups together. When people cannot interact with their neighbors face to face, they build up walls in their minds instead. When we cannot just “be,” without the pressure of buying another coffee or whatever, our society and culture begin to die out. Third places are important, and they must be public to remain free for all.
Peter Fenteany is a weekly columnist for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.