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Artist’s Voice: What’s Your Third Place?

Our Third Places used to be libraries, coffee shops, bars, and restaurants. This summer we’ve had to re-think our Third Places.

By Natalie Strong

Headshot, Natalie Strong, indoors
Natalie Strong

In his 1989 book The Great Good Place, Ray Oldenburg introduced the concept of the “Third Place.” If your home is your First Place and work or school is your Second Place, your Third Places are the places you spend time in between, like libraries, coffee shops, restaurants, and parks. Oldenburg emphasizes Third Places as an essential part of our social, economic, and civic engagement. And without them…

Without them. That’s where we find ourselves in 2020, necessarily so, but “without” nonetheless. While business closure statuses fluctuate as we negotiate the novel-coronavirus pandemic as a community, many of us have lost, partially regained, and re-lost our Third Places. I, personally, miss the library so much! I didn’t realize how much I needed it until I could no longer go. I can’t wait until we can safely return.

For now, though, I am forced to reimagine my Third Places. While public interactions with friends, family, and strangers may not be occurring regularly these days, some of the benefits of the Third Place can be replicated at home.

One special characteristic of Third Places is their neutrality. They are places that don’t belong to you or me or them but that we share while we are there. Home is not inherently neutral. We tend to have personal territory, a chair that we always sit in or a room where we do particular tasks, your bedroom, my bathroom. But there are places we may overlook that don’t “belong” to anyone in particular. Perhaps there is an unused porch or balcony, a forgotten corner of the yard or an accent chair no one sits in. Even something as simple as sitting on the floor across the room from your usual spot can make a familiar task seem new. Perhaps you can move the furniture around or swap seats at the family dinner table. These little changes can trigger new thoughts or ideas, shift the social dynamic, or offer new perspective on your habits. After four months without the variety provided by Third Places, these little changes could breathe new life into your family.

Third Places are often conversational places where talking is one of the primary activities. We talk to each other and we hear others talking. Now that you’ve found that new spot in your home, call someone you haven’t seen in a while and encourage them to find a new place to sit. Perhaps your conversation will take an unexpected turn. You can also indulge in some eavesdropping by listening to a new podcast, something chatty and casual. Maybe they’ll tell a dumb story that you can share with your family. We are all in a conversation drought right now without our Third Places. Invite new conversation into your day to help get you through.

Third Places also serve as homes away from home. There aren’t a lot of places to go, so my car is one of my new Third Places. Give this a try: pack up a little bag of things to do, throw in a snack and a bottle of water and go park somewhere with a lot of turn-over. Crack the window so you can hear others. Who pulls in? What do they talk about as they go about their business? How many pigeons use your car for target practice? Just get away from home, even if there isn’t a destination.

All of these little incidents and observations, conversations, and visual stimuli add to the texture of our lives, and as we all stay home so much, we are lacking in texture. You have to seek it out, but it isn’t hard to find if you think outside your usual routines. Discovering what’s missing for you these days is the first step in inviting it back in, even if it comes in an unfamiliar form.

Natalie Strong lives in El Segundo. She is an artist, a writer, and a parent of two.

This essay appears in the August 2020 issue of The El Segundo Scene.

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