The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community by Ray Oldenburg

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Places Discussed

  • Various
  • Germany
  • London, England
  • Paris, France
  • River Park, Minnesota
  • Vienna, Austria

People PlacesBook Notes

This book explores, analyzes, and advocates for informal public space in communities. The book paints a vivid portrait of many public spaces, their general features, and a hopeful tone of including them in modern urban landscapes.

In Part I, the author defines the concept of "the third place," which are "the core settings of informal public life" (p. 16). Third places take their rank from the idea that "daily life, in order to be relaxed and fulfilling, must find its balance in three realms of experience": 1) home; 2) work; and 3) social life (p. 14). The third place is: neutral ground (p. 22) where conversation is the main activity (p. 26) where people are available, almost around the clock (p. 32) and which is humble in appearance, actually plain (p. 37) in order to repel pretentiousness and foster a playful mood (p. 37).

In Part II, the author surveys third place examples, including German-American beer gardens, an American Main Street, the English pub, the French café, the American tavern, and classic coffeehouses from their origins in Saudi Arabia, to England, and then Vienna. Cafe Central, Vienna

In Part III, the author covers various topics including gender, youth, urban planning, and hopes for the future. He's particularly hard on urban planners who seem, in Oldenburg's portrayal, to take great pride in getting absolutely no input from the public whatsoever about human needs. Indeed, Oldenburg's tone throughout is one of incredulity about how "...the course of urban growth and development in the United States has been hostile to an informal public life..." (p. xi).

I think this book's main strength is its evocation of the idea of the third place and its cogent illustration of particular third places. I enjoyed his descriptions of the cafés and coffeehouses that served an important function toward forming communities, and, in particular, early journalism and mercantile activities, particularly in England. Oldenburg's observations show how informal cafes and meeting places can foster genuine innovation, and even new kinds of businesses (insurance and shipping news in England, for example) and thus can serve to foster economic development.

The author's observations about the expansion of freeways, suburban sprawl, and car sizes from the 1980's seem quaint when compared to what would develop into gargantuan 21st-century sizes. In fact, although the author provides a passionate portrait and enthusiastic blueprint for public spaces, it may be that the social customs and habits these places engender, support, and require may no longer be in the repertoire of the generations of people alive now, many of whom have grown up unfamiliar with positive public space and perhaps antagonistic to even the idea of public space (as useless or suspicious places where people are lounging about not "doing anything.")

Oldenburg provides some analysis and thought to why third places are so hard to sustain. He describes how modern techniques of restaurant design, selling food, beverages, and products encourage restaurant owners to squeeze every penny of profit from every unit area of a place. This often involves short-term gain (e.g. "ladies night" at bars, more expensive food, and hustling customers out) that lead to loss of the long-term goodwill and affinity that patrons might have for a place. I think Oldenburg is a bit derisive of retailers and restaurant owners who want to turn a profit. He does observe that third places are not run as charities. Also, no profit means no place. Today, excellent third places might be profitable businesses for owners wanting to truly foster the rare kind of neighborhood social atmosphere that people have responded to for over 500 years of human history. Twenty-first century cities may be settings where people seek genuine and rare experiences, and, with time, may re-learn many third place social customs.

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