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Third Places (revisited)

As the world has become increasingly interconnected on the virtual plane, we appear to be losing the former mode of connection.

We aren’t the first people to point this out, of course. There are plenty of jokes about spending “face time” instead of “FaceTime” (the latter is a video chat app for iPhones and iPads).

But all jokes aside, the trend away from in-person interpersonal interaction represents a significant cultural shift. And it’s not without consequences.

It might be hard for some — especially the younger generation — to remember a time when we would need to actually venture outside and into public in order to socialize with others. We’d meet up with friends and (gasp!) strike up conversations with friendly strangers, simply because we were in the same place at the same time.

At the risk of sounding curmudgeonly, this has given way to text messages and everyone staring into their phones.

In his book The Great Good Place (1989, 1991), sociologist Ray Oldenburg gained widespread attention for describing what he deemed “Third Places.” According to Oldenburg, third places are essentially any meeting space other than work, school, or home. Third places are what you’d find on main streets in old towns: coffee shops, post offices, pubs, barber shops, and athletic clubs.

Oldenburg says that “Without these third places, wedon’t get to know the people around us. We have no ‘place on the corner’ that can serve as an easy escape.’”

Perhaps you’re thinking, “I don’t need an escape; I have Facebook.”

To that, Oldenburg would say, “Life without community” — and he means authentic, in-person community with those who live in your neighborhood — “means a lifestyle of the home-to-work-and-back-again shuttle.”

That sounds less fun. And Facebook isn’t an adequate antidote to that shuttle.

We’d like to make a call for a revival of the third place. We’re proud that we already provide a third place for a great number of people across the Twin Cities. People who want to meet up but don’t want to yell over the din of a bar or coffee shop come to the University Club of Saint Paul or the Saint Paul Athletic Club to reconnect with old friends and make new ones. We’re working every day to restore and re-open new third places.

We’re not anti-Facebook. In fact, we love Facebook.  But we don’t think it works as a substitute for a handshake or a hug or a shared laugh or the clink of a toast among friends.

Come join us out here.