It’s Time for Americans to Return to Third Places

We benefit from interacting with our communities outside of home and work

Public gathering places allow individuals to build relationships and foster social trust. Image Credit: gradyreese/Getty Images

The humorist H.L. Mencken once called his local Baltimore tavern “a hospital asylum from life and its cares.” This pub is an example of what American sociologist Ray Oldenburg was the first to call a third place: a place that may serve as a welcome escape from home (the first place) and work (the second place). This idea is foreign to many of us today, as everything from work to dinner and a movie can now be done from home or delivered to our doorstep.

With respect to third places, COVID-19 made everything worse. The lockdowns forced us to sever our connections to public gathering places where we met friends, such as bars, restaurants, cafes, barber shops, beauty salons, parks, museums and libraries. People had to stay home, so they tried to bring as many outside amenities as possible into where they lived.

This privatization of public spaces has demonstrable disadvantages. For example, it damages people’s social-emotional health, just as closing down a real “hospital asylum” would harm their physical or mental health. So as Americans recover from the pandemic shutdown, their healing should be measured not only by increased economic production, lifted mask requirements or unrestrained travel. It must include a return to third places, those relaxing and engaging institutional gathering places of civil society that foster social connections.

Creating Communities

Oldenburg describes third places as locations people visit voluntarily, where conversation is the main activity. They have no membership requirements; social differences are leveled and generally left outside the establishment. In small towns, especially, third place associations can be spread along a Main Street and may even include a rich sidewalk life. Oldenburg provides many examples of these third places, including German-American beer gardens, French cafes and English pubs.

Third places are some of the many assets or anchor institutions that comprise the social infrastructure of a community. They are also an opportunity structure where individuals can encounter new friends and new ideas. These settings often have their own rituals and activities that patrons perform—the way they greet one another, the places they sit or the cheers they use as they watch their favorite sports team. Third places create a normative context that conveys important personal meaning to those who participate, generating a collective identity that attaches visitors to that place, neighborhood and community.

Finally, third places help people form close friendships and increase their civic involvement. And because they cultivate a sense of belonging and promote connection, offering the social treasures gained by interpersonal interaction, they generate place capital. They are civil society’s living room.

I saw the social goods of third places firsthand as I worked from an early age in an Italian tavern owned by my grandparents called the Golden Gate Inn. It was located on the east side of Cleveland, Ohio, in the Collinwood neighborhood, a mostly Italian-American area. Our two separate family apartments were above the tavern and an adjoining third place, a hair and beauty salon operated by my Auntie Babe.

In my earliest memory of working in the bar, I was four years old. I carried a bottle of beer to a thirsty patron, and he gave me a penny tip. Eventually, I helped with everything except cooking meals, which was Grandma Gattozzi’s solemn duty.

Two groups frequented the Golden Gate Inn, which we called “the joint” or “the place.” The first were neighborhood regulars, mostly Italian-American men, arriving after dinner to talk and drink. They would nurse a glass of homemade Italian wine or a cold bottle of Pilsner of Cleveland. Wives and children often arrived later, congregating in their circles while enjoying their appropriate beverages.

The other regulars were mostly factory workers, men from different racial and ethnic backgrounds who worked in the nearby manufacturing plants. They arrived around 4:00 p.m. weekdays on their way home from work, striking up conversations while nursing the same drinks as the neighborhood regulars.

Occasionally, a regular brought a newcomer, or a stranger wandered into the place. These too were welcome, but not every newcomer graduated into a regular. “Sometimes wine juice turns out to be vinegar,” my grandfather would say.

The tavern jukebox played music, rock and roll or hits from the great American songbook. You could often hear the cracking sound of spinning pool balls hitting each other and the double ringing sound from the shuffleboard bowling game. The hum of conversation ebbed and flowed with the clock as regulars and their families came and went. To me, it always sounded like home.

Improving Quality of Life

The tavern was at the center of my young world, but to the casual observer, there was nothing exceptional about the Golden Gate Inn or Babe’s Beauty Salon. Only looking back do I fully appreciate the significance of these places. As third place institutions, they connected people in ways that were good for them, the neighborhood and the larger community.

It turns out that there are benefits for individuals associated with living near public and commercial third places. The American Enterprise Institute’s Survey Center for American Life has created a Neighborhood Amenities Index that measures how close American live to six categories of places: grocery stores; restaurants, bars or coffee shops; gyms or fitness centers; movie theatres, bowling alleys or other entertainment centers; parks or recreation centers; and community centers or libraries.

By asking survey respondents to indicate their proximity to these places, Survey Center analysts were able to identify community types and how many Americans live in each type. More than one-third of Americans (36%) live in “very high or high amenity communities,” which means they live within walking distance of at least four of the six amenities. Thirty-eight percent live in “moderate amenity communities,” where they are not more than a short car trip of 5-15 minutes away from any of the six. More than one in four (27%) live in “low or very low amenity communities,” where they must drive 15-30 minutes to reach any of the six amenities.

The Survey Center analysts conclude: “The results show that even after taking into account educational background, race and ethnicity, ideology, income, age, and urbanity, people who live closer to neighborhood amenities are more trusting, are less socially isolated, and express greater satisfaction with their community.” In short, third place amenities matter greatly when it comes to quality of life.

Bonding and Bridging Social Groups

I mentioned earlier that third places generate “place capital” within a community, but they can also build social capital. Experts distinguish between two types of social capital, that is, the trusting relationships and networks we have with others. Bonding social capital is nurtured in like-minded groups. Bridging social capital is nurtured in mixed groups—whether racially, professionally, socioeconomically or otherwise. As social scientist Xavier de Souza Briggs observes, bonding social capital is for “getting by,” but bridging social capital is for “getting ahead.”

These two forms of social capital align with what Adam Grant, the organizational psychologist, calls strong and weak ties. He writes: “Our strong ties tend to travel in the same social circles and know . . . the same opportunities,” whereas “[w]eak ties are more likely to open up access to a different network, facilitating the discovery of original leads.” Grant suggests that when it comes to pursuing jobs and other opportunities, weak ties are more valuable: They open our access to new social networks and connections, since casual acquaintances are more likely than close friends to know people and opportunities we don’t know.

Survey Center analysts found that those who frequent a third place are much more likely to develop weak ties through the diverse social networks and connections they make with people of a different race, ethnicity or religion. This relationship between community connections and socially diverse friendship networks helps us overcome our natural tendency to self-select into groups like ourselves. A Survey Center report explains: “Americans who live in areas packed with neighborhood amenities . . . tend to report having a more racially and religiously diverse set of friends and acquaintances.”

The Survey Center analysis also examines the relationship between individuals’ general view of humanity (general trust) and their specific view of their neighbor (specific trust). Americans fall into four similarly sized groups. “Communitarians” have higher levels of both general and specific trust. “Localists” have higher levels of specific trust and lower levels of general trust. “Humanists” have higher levels of general trust and lower levels of specific trust. “Isolationists” have lower levels of both general and specific trust.

There is a major difference between the communitarians and localists (who feel close to others in their neighborhoods) and the humanists and isolationists (who don’t report that same sense of closeness). The difference lies in their sense of optimism. The former two groups “are more likely to rate their neighborhoods as excellent places to live and believe their communities will improve over the next five years.” Moreover, the communitarian and localist engagement with neighbors “boost(s) happiness and tend(s) to reduce ideological extremism by focusing attention on what is going on around them rather than on the abstract worries of the world.”

It seems that modern life, insofar as it offers the illusion of being connected to everybody in the world while encouraging a disconnection from our neighbors, may be poorly engineered for happiness. It also may be poorly engineered for economic opportunity. But multiple and diverse social connections, which are often created in third places, may increase people’s access to those opportunities.

Decreasing Loneliness

Survey Center analysts used a modified version of the UCLA Loneliness Scale to understand how place shapes an individual’s sense of community and identity. They asked survey respondents 19 questions about their connections to or disconnections from others, linking these responses with other survey questions on amenities and other community connections. They found that Americans get a sense of connection and community from their friends, neighborhoods and hometowns—from the local, place-based connections they have—more than from their political ideology or ethnic identity.

In contrast, active members of political organizations “report an average loneliness score that is a full two points higher than the national average, a considerable increase.” So the friendship networks produced by political ideology are different from other friendship networks, in that they tend to drive people apart and lead to more loneliness rather than develop a stronger sense of community. In addition, being a member of a like-minded political community with a “tribal epistemology that supports the tribe’s values and goals and is vouchsafed by tribal leaders” increases the likelihood that network members will believe in conspiracies—though Democrats and Republicans believe in different ones, and there are variations by race, ethnicity, income and other demographic characteristics.

Third place amenities can be the antidote to this tribalism. They are essential for forming the relationships and associations that make up civil society and that help people succeed, discover new opportunities and live more flourishing lives. Living close to these third places “increases neighborliness, feelings of safety, social trust, and positive feelings about the community.”

Renewing Connections

The COVID-19 shock disrupted our connections to people and places, particularly third places where we meet old friends and find new ones. As Americans emerge from the isolation brought on by pandemic hibernation, they must rediscover third places and the connections they offer. Voluntary associations that give people a sense of place and purpose are an important part of civil society and keep communities strong.

At the same time, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of romanticizing third places or looking back to the good old days. The Golden Gate Inn and Babe’s Beauty Salon closed their doors for the last time in the late 1970s. They can serve as inspiration but not as an exact model. Our world has changed too much and is continuing to change so rapidly. So we should begin by patronizing current third places—and creating new ones that foster the diverse connections that create the bonds that improve communities.

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