It’s rare to read a work of sociology that makes you cry, but The Great
Good Place by Ray Oldenburg is such a work. Even the title touches my
heart, describing as it does a place and phenomenon which has been all
but eradicated from American life by urban planners and suburban zoning
laws . . . the local tavern, coffee house, diner, corner store, soda
fountain . . . the “third place” set in between home and work where the
sometimes overwhelming confinement of the former and the often
stressful environment of the latter can be mediated by informal
conviviality with a small voluntary community of fellow citizens.
A true third place must be convenient, not dependent on traveling a great
distance to reach, so its gatherings need not be planned — it must be
utterly inclusive, public, welcoming, and it must have regulars who
frequent it by happy choice and not out of any sense of obligation.
Whatever its physical ambiance might be, it becomes cozy and warm
through sociability, free and easy conversation, a sense of belonging
not maintained by any rules except those freely chosen by each
Oldenburg’s valuable synthesis of sociological insight into the third place, and
the dire consequences to the quality of American life brought about by
its demise, is also a quiet Jeremiad against the society, against all
of us, who have allowed this catastrophe to happen.
I think one reason people come so far in such numbers to Las Vegas is to
experience, in a brief concentrated dose, the free and easy mood of the
vanished third place — to drink and play with strangers who are not
really strangers, once greeted cheerfully and respectfully. Las Vegas
is America’s lost mythical corner tavern, with the naughty calendar on
the wall, poker in the back room, cheap food and drink at the bar. No
expectations, no networking, no snobbery — a true exercise in
democracy, inclusiveness, civility amidst diversity.
It’s a fantasy, of course, since the unique mood of Las Vegas is not
integrated into the lives of those who visit here, and so can never
take the place of a real third place. It is a great good place, though,
where you can kick back a little, forget the troubles of the workaday
world, see a few familiar faces and have a friendly word or two with
almost anyone you meet, from any walk of life and any place on the map.
Oldenburg argues persuasively that we’re not really human, fully human, if we don’t have places in our regular day-to-day lives where that is possible . . .