By Mickey Howley
I heard it again last Saturday afternoon. The weather was just great, the sky clear and blue. I was on Main Street and not one but three separate times long-term residents – “Valley natives” – told me how packed Main Street was on Saturdays years ago. Main Street last Saturday was not empty, there was more traffic—vehicle and pedestrian– than say five years ago, but it was not packed by any means.
This made me think about Ray Oldenburg, a guy who is an urban sociologist. Ray writes about the importance of informal public gathering places. Here’s one of Ray’s quotes about the difference between Main Street and a shopping mall or big box store: “Totally unlike Main Street, the shopping mall is populated by strangers. As people circulate about in the constant, monotonous flow of mall pedestrian traffic, their eyes do not cast about for familiar faces, for the chance of seeing one is small. That is not part of what one expects there. The reason is simple. The mall is centrally located to serve the multitudes from a number of outlying developments within its region.”
And that is it for me, malls and big box stores are so impersonal. Plus, maybe I’m lazy, I don’t want to drive 40 miles to buy things.
Ray wrote a book “The Great Good Place” and in it he describes and defines the working of what he calls the “Third Place” in society. The first place is the home and the second place is work. The Third Place is the place you go after or during or in between. You say you only go home or to work?
According to Ray you’re not alone, but in his opinion, that’s not much of a life. You see the Third Place is where you hang out with the community. This type of place is essential; Ray knows humans have a powerful need to associate. That need to associate or belong is critical if a community is to revive itself. And these informal places of public life are critical for the health of a town as well as us personally.
A Third Place could be a coffee shop, diner, restaurant, bookstore, drugstore, or tavern. These Third Places are what makes Main Street different from malls or big boxes.
While not so simple to define, Third Places have some common features. They are neutral ground. You don’t have to be there, you want to be there. The playing field is level in that Third Places put no importance on an individual’s status. You are going to hear conversation in a Third Place. The tone of conversation is usually humorous and witty. Third Places are open and readily accessible to all. They must also be accommodating. You feel comfortable there. Like you belong there. Third Places harbor a number of regulars that help give the space its tone, and help set the mood and character. But these regulars to Third Places also attract newcomers, and the regulars are there to help someone new to the space feel welcome. The inside of a Third Place is not overly fancy. Third Places give you a feeling of warmth and belonging.
Now that loose description could be any number of places in Water Valley. We have had some Third Places here for over a century and some for just a few years. And it is up to us to keep these Third Places going. For these Third Places are more than moneymaking ventures, they are much more than that, they make the town livable.