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On a Sunday last year, I was walking through a suburban neighborhood in Pennsylvania, heading home from an early-afternoon meditation class. One of the nondescript stucco houses had a curious sticker on its mailbox reading Mac’s Club. I checked Google Maps to see if I was standing next to a cleverly disguised business—what might pretentiously be referred to in a city as a speakeasy—but nothing popped up, so I peeked inside the house. That’s where I spotted a pool table and a middle-aged guy sitting at the end of a long, mahogany bar, drinking a Bloody Mary by himself. Apparently I’d stumbled upon a social club meant for residents of the neighborhood. Though at first the bartender was incredulous that I’d just walked in, he soon rewarded my sense of adventure with a Guinness on the house. The Eagles weren’t playing in the NFL that day, and he was grateful for the additional company. We talked about the upcoming deer season, and upon learning that I was a new hunter, the two guys showed me a rifle that was kept in another room.
On the train back to Philadelphia, where I was living at the time, I felt much more euphoric about the unexpected hangout than I did about the supposedly spiritual experience that had preceded it. To me, the ideal hangout has a few components: spontaneity, purposelessness, and a willingness among all parties involved to go wherever the conversation leads them. This one met all the criteria. Two strangers took a chance on spending an hour with an outsider—a tiny woman of ambiguous age who is sometimes told she resembles the Disney character Spinelli—who was enticed by a simple sign. They had no reason to expect we would share common ground. But we managed to have a perfect, no-stakes interaction after two years in which many people haven’t taken a chance on anybody.
Besides giving me the feeling that I’d flexed a muscle that had atrophied, the interaction was special to me because I’d found a classic “third place” in the suburbs, where I least expected it. The term, which was coined by the sociologist Ray Oldenburg in the 1980s, essentially refers to a physical location other than work or home where there’s little to no financial barrier to entry and where conversation is the primary activity. The historical examples that Oldenburg cites in his book The Great Good Place include French cafés, German American beer gardens, and English pubs, all of which appeal to people from various walks of life.
In my early 20s, I was unacquainted with the term third place, though the hope of someday becoming a regular at one was the primary reason I moved from the Florida suburbs to New York City. After all, cities are where people are supposed to have serendipitous encounters—as the writer and critic Jane Jacobs said, “The metropolis provides what otherwise could be given only by traveling; namely, the strange.” By comparison, the cliché goes, people become more atomized the farther they move from urban environments into the clinical, safe, and relatively unexciting suburbs. I spent most of my teenage years listening to whiny guitar-based music that drove home that exact point.
But these days, the art of hanging out seems to be waning in cities. The American Community Life Survey reported last year that only 25 percent of people living in areas with “very high” amenity access—close to grocery stores, gyms, bowling alleys, and other ideal sites of chance encounters—actually socialize with strangers at least once a week. In 2019, about two-thirds of Americans said they had a favorite local place they went to regularly. That two-thirds has since dropped to a little more than half, according to the survey. Clearly, COVID-19’s arrival accelerated the problem—making small talk with strangers scaled back, because of infection risk, while some bars and restaurants became to-go establishments, discouraging loitering. When I caught up with Oldenburg, the third-place sociologist, over the phone in the summer of 2020, he told me that he was socializing in his Florida garage, which he’d converted into a pseudo dive bar for him and his friend to use—no more venturing out in search of serendipity. If the world’s foremost scholar on the importance of mingling with strangers had all but given up on doing so himself, what hope was there for the rest of us? (Now might be as good a moment as ever for many vaccinated Americans to fraternize, but those who are older or immunocompromised still have real concerns about the coronavirus.)
Rich Heyman, an American-studies professor at the University of Texas at Austin, sees what’s happened during the COVID era as the continuation of a trend that began in the middle of the 20th century. When city dwellers were largely confined to crowded tenements, they were forced out into the world, which often meant hanging out with strangers in taverns. But as time went on, leisure became privatized. Living conditions improved; people chose to sit with their nuclear families in front of the television. This is similar to the diagnosis of modern American life that Robert Putnam put forth in his seminal work, Bowling Alone, though Heyman notes that the problem has been exacerbated since the book came out in 2000. Today people frequently spend their leisure time in solitude with their personal screens. “Now we have on-demand streaming, and social media, which are further extensions of that fundamental shift,” he told me.
Thus, the simple act of spending time with new people can be an unnecessarily complex challenge. David Rapp, a 40-year-old former schoolteacher from the outskirts of Chicago, told me a story familiar to any single person’s whose friend group has settled down and procreated: He found scheduling hangouts with his buddies difficult. And like me, he assumed that moving to a major city would help him meet new friends on a regular basis.
Although he quickly joined a local runners’ group upon arriving in Chicago proper, these meetups obviously came with an expectation of productivity. (The fact that the group was more about exercising than conversation disqualifies it from being a third place, per Oldenburg’s theory.) And as an ex-drinker, Rapp had no interest in the bar scene. Coffee shops filled the void during the day but tended to close in the late afternoon. Frederick Law Olmsted—the architect of Central Park—incidentally designed parks as ideal third places, but good luck approaching a stranger in one at night without looking like a creep. Ironically, Rapp started driving half an hour outside the city to a suburban tea shop that stayed open late and could afford to let him loiter.
So what’s replaced hangouts in the city? In many cases, I’d consider them ersatz third places: establishments that are either too expensive for the average American or apparently designed to disincentivize lingering. Think carefully curated faux dive bars that serve $15 beer-and-shot specials, or parks like New York’s High Line that are built to be moved through in a linear fashion. Meanwhile, the ground between the third place and the office—what Oldenburg called the “second place”—is murky. Co-working spaces and corporate amenities such as employee-only coffee shops tap the aesthetics and function of a café—plush seating, the availability of caffeine—to insidiously extract more productivity from workers. In these privatized third places, there is an expectation that all conversation will be centered on work. There is the underlying anxiety of being on the clock—the antithesis of just hanging out. And the possibility of a wildly unexpected encounter is slim given that most people in attendance will be in roughly the same socioeconomic stratum because they work in similar jobs.
The ersatz third place is a consequence of a culture obsessed with productivity and status, whose subjects might have decent incomes but little recreational time. Urban-dwelling Americans, however, tend to place work at the center of life in part because cities are so expensive to live in. They might work 50-hour weeks to survive, leaving little to no time for leisure and community engagement. Unstructured quality time with friends is replaced with a scheduled series of continuous catch-ups. Subsequently, these overscheduled people lack meaningful ties with their neighbors, and so they patronize spaces to make those connections even less frequently.
Kathy Giuffre, a professor at Colorado College who studies third places, told me that a real third place can also contain an element of casual social aid. “You can get a shoulder to cry on via your best friend, but sometimes you need someone to lend you a cup of sugar, and that’s about proximity,” she told me. “You just need someone to watch your dog for five minutes while you run into a store or something.” Ultimately, she said, a world made up of atomized, physically isolated people is a world without a true shared reality—which is a recipe for civic disengagement, misinformation, and perhaps even political extremism.
Maybe to drive home her point about the lack of third places in the United States, Giuffre said that she’s in the process of moving to a Tuscan village and plans to spend her retirement sitting in a café with old men, playing dominos. But for people who don’t have the resources to move to Europe in search of a pure third place—such as myself—she offered a bit of advice: “Socializing is a learned skill, but the last time we learned it we were probably little kids. So be kind to yourself, because you might be out of practice.”
With that in mind, a friend and I recently went to an old favorite called the Tip Top Bar & Grill, in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn. It checks all the boxes of a classic third place: It has been around for decades; it is family owned; and it serves nothing much fancier than Miller High Life. We were there for a Texas-hoedown-themed barbecue, replete with great music and free homemade food. I spent five hours stuffing myself with ribs and making a couple of new pals who invited me back yet again for a birthday celebration. This was all on a Sunday night, and none of the patrons seemed too worried about getting to work the next day. On this glorious evening, the rules seemed not to apply. If only this happened more often.