Author: Madeleine Roberts-Ganim
Where do you go when you are itching to leave the house but don’t need to go to work or class? The University of Chicago has a multitude of spaces on campus where students can go to socialize, relax, and study. Whether you prefer the bright lights of the Ex Libris coffee shop or the cozy interior of the Harper Memorial Library, UChicago students have no shortage of on-campus cafés, libraries, and study spaces to hang out in when they want to get out of the house.
Some of these spots can be described as “third places.” Ray Oldenburg, an American sociologist, created this term to describe the places outside of the home (the first place) and the workplace (the second place) where people go to converse with others and connect with their community. In this casual and social environment, no one is obligated to be there and cost should not prevent people from attending. It is a place where we can interact with members of our community and even turn strangers into friends. At a third place, you might go to hangout with your friends, you might run into acquaintances by chance, or you might meet people you have never encountered before. It is a meeting ground to build relationships with others outside of home or work.
For a deeper discussion of and investigation into third places in and around the University of Chicago, check out this fascinating article published by The Chicago Maroon.
Third places might look different around the world. However, like much of the world, Americans love conversing with others over food and drink. Accordingly, it might be unsurprising that coffee shops and bars are some of the most common and popular third places in the United States. Bars and coffee shops serve several purposes in the U.S. They can act as a meet-up spot for friends, a place to strike up a conversation with a stranger, a performance venue, or even a second office for some. However, purchasing a drink or a snack is often an unspoken requirement to attend and linger in these third spaces. While you do not have to spend an arm and a leg* to enter a coffee shop or bar, the cost of this imaginary “entry ticket” may prevent some people from regularly using these spots as their preferred third space.
While it may seem like you have to buy something to go anywhere in the U.S., truly free third places do exist! Parks and public libraries are some of the best places to gather with friends and strangers in the United States for no cost at all. On weekends, in the evenings, and even during the weekday, you can find people utilizing libraries and parks to gather, build community, and relax. Many libraries and parks are open well into the evening, so you can often stick around for as long as you like.
For Americans, third places are where we can both affirm our own identities and build empathy for identities different from our own. The United States is a multicultural and multilingual country. When we connect with members of our community at third places, we can find people who share racial, ethnic, linguistic, religious, sexual, and gender identities with us. It can be incredibly affirming to find people who have identities similar to our own in our own community, so that we can share experiences and support each other. At the same time, third places allow for a space to meet people entirely different from us. We can meet people from different cultures, backgrounds, and life experiences, which encourages us to empathize with people of different identities. We can learn about the experiences of those different from us and use our resources to support our community, standing in solidarity no matter if we share an identity or not. Third places make us feel as if we belong to a society bigger than ourselves.
Third places even play a large role in American media. Take the popular 1980s American sitcom Cheers. The show features friends, neighbors, and coworkers who all meet at their local bar to hang out and commiserate. This bar serves as the community’s meeting ground and third place. The show’s theme song speaks to the healing and community building power of third places, where you can go to take “a break from all your worries” and to go some place “where everybody knows your name.”
UChicago’s own bar, The Pub, is a great third place on UChicago’s campus. The bar is a popular hangout spot for students and staff. While you might catch one or two students finishing up a paper in one of the booths, most people are there to chat, play games, or try their hand at trivia on Tuesdays. At The Pub, you can connect with other members of the UChicago community.
Even though third spaces are such an essential part of American culture, accessing third places can be challenging in the United States. Many cities and towns have limited or no public transportation. In many American towns, third places like coffee shops, bars, libraries, and parks are far away from residential areas. When third places are not within walking distance, access to a car is often a necessity if you want to venture out to a third place. These challenges, along with the COVID pandemic and the possibilities of online connection through social media, may make it tempting to stay home rather than go out for social interaction.
The diminishing of third places reveals American culture’s emphasis on individualism and profit. No third places prompt Americans to spend more time at home, by themselves. This can cause us to develop individualistic rather than community-focused mindsets, since we do not feel connected to our community. This emphasis on individualism can make us feel isolated. In addition, profit seems to be increasingly valued over human connection in American culture. A lack of third places forces us to spend more time at work, encouraging productivity and labor over leisure time with friends and community members.
However, these challenges make third places all the more important. With cost, American urban planning, health, and technology impacting the way in which people engage with one another, we must work even harder to stay connected with the community beyond our immediate circles. While it can be difficult to extend oneself beyond the social spheres of home and work, it is infinitely rewarding to meet new people who have experiences different from our own. Third spaces are integral to forging these relationships and connecting people of unique backgrounds, regions, and interests. In any given neighborhood in the United States, you can meet people from all over the country and the world. Take advantage of this opportunity, and go see who you might meet at a third place!
Does the concept of a “third place” exist in your culture? Where do you go to create community?
*this English phrase means a “large amount of money”