Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Third Places

Sunday Morning at The Belvedere, 2010

In his book, “The Great Good Place,” Ray Oldenburg wrote that everyone needs three places: home, work and a “third place.” The first two places don’t require much explanation. The third, writes Oldenburg, include all those places—e.g. bars, pubs, buses, coffee houses, bookstores, cafes and parks—that “host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work.”

Third places allow people to put aside their concerns and simply enjoy the company and conversation around them. The best indicator of a good third place is indeed that the talk is good.

The common element in the third places in my life is food. Like The Belvedere Cafe, above, where my wife and I have lunch on Sundays, or the Atlas Dinner, a neighborhood place where we meet friends for cheap burgers every Tuesday night.

Mind you, although we go to both places to eat—it would be putting too fine a point on it to describe it as “dining”—neither of these places is known for its cuisine. But both are, each in its own way, pillars of social vitality.

The Belvedere is small. The seating is close. You can’t help but talk to the people beside you. The person next to you might be a judge, admiral, motel operator, plumber, banker, flight attendant, teacher or just a couple of tourists from New Jersey amazed at how genuinely friendly Virginians are. Most are regular patrons, especially in the winter when there are fewer tourists around. On Sundays around noon the conversation usually starts with a rehash of that morning’s Face The Nation and then moves on to other issues. Some morning we just rib each other, or egg on the good-natured rivalry between the cooks and waitresses.

[I even made a little movie about the Belvedere here.]

The Atlas Diner is far more spacious and its community is defined on more of a geographic basis. I don’t know half of the people at the Atlas on Tuesdays. But because we all show up at about the same time every Tuesday there’s a default sense of camaraderie. If we see an elderly companion missing, we inquire about their health. If we see kids home from college, we stop to see how they’re doing. For an hour or so on Tuesday evenings, we are a community.

For a lot of people, online social networking is becoming the new third place. On Facebook you can even define the kind of “relationship” you’re looking for from your “friends.” Social networking in the online world doesn’t have the intimacy of meeting in real space. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say I feel I know some of the people I’ve gotten to know through Flickr, Fotolog and Facebook better than I would have had I seen them on a hundred Tuesdays at the Atlas Diner. If I thought they had knowledge or experience that might help me, I wouldn’t hesitate to contact any of them, or be reluctant to help anyone who contacted me.

I don’t know any of them, though, who can beat the allure of cheap burgers at the Atlas.


  1. I'm amazed that I like some of my Flickr contacts more than some of my "friends". You're often the example I use when I try to describe this very thing.

  2. I love that notion of the third place. It's so true--I have "met" some really interesting, wonderful people through the internet, and I really enjoy them. Many, I have actually met in person, but many others, I may never physically meet, yet I feel as if I've known a few of them forever! Good to have met you online, Chris! As for the eateries--they sound like great fun.

  3. I have some revolving "third places": Zip's Diner, Midway Restaurant, Wooden Spoon Cafe. Only the last has really good food, but all have that sense of community which is actually a bit hard to find otherwise in my little town.

    As for Flickr..... Well, a few of my Flickr friends have been in-person friends for awhile now and I feel closer to them than many of my other friends because we've shared almost daily "sights" and musings. It's almost as if we've been walking around together, pointing out the world we see to each other, for years now. Remarkable.

    And when are you coming north again anyway?