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Oldenburg, Ray. The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts, and How They Get You Through the Day. New York: Paragon House, 1989 (338 pp.). Oldenburg’s interesting and lively look at what he terms "third places" has become one of the classics of place-based literature, and with good reason. It’s nearly impossible to pick up a sociological study today about the nature of community and not find a reference to the "Great Good Place." Oldenburg’s book appeared at about the same time as works like Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart were investigating the disappearance of civil society in America. It is a bit curious that The Great Good Place does not reference Bellah, Christopher Lasch, and some of the other communitarian classics of the day; but whereas Bellah and others approach the issues primarily from a sociological perspective, Oldenburg’s focus is more tangible and specific, in that he suggests the diminution of publicness is largely connected to the disappearance of "third places" – those neutral community spots, such as taverns or cafes, where people historically could meet in informal ways. It’s not totally clear whether Oldenburg sees their eradication from the public sphere as a cause or effect; that is, does the elimination of bars, for example, from most suburban neighborhoods lead to a further reduction in civicism, or has society’s general movement toward a more individualistic and less associational way of life caused the disappearance of third places? We imagine the author would say it’s a chicken-and-egg question, a little of both; but regardless, the vicious circle continues to feed on itself to the point that we have legally outlawed – through zoning and other policies – many of the meeting places that traditionally helped maintain a sense of community. What’s amazingly prescient about The Great Good Place is Oldenburg’s characterization of modern urban development, particularly the suburbs, and the ways in which the design of these faux communities effects civic life. This is a theme that’s been taken up by architects, city planners, social critics, and others who now recognize that the typical suburban sprawl is not healthy for civil society, but it was Oldenburg who popularized the critique. (That’s not to discount the work of Jane Jacobs, Patrick Goldring, or others who are a generation prior to Oldenburg, but The Great Good Place is one of the first that links design and sociology in such commonsense ways.) Because the author is a sociologist, much of the book reads like a report of people’s activities in certain situations – in the tavern, the beauty parlor, etc. – and these observations are less interesting than the conclusions drawn from them. In fact, the beginning and conclusion of the book, where he sets up his argument and then offers his final observations, are the most interesting parts. The middle third is a report of different kinds of third places around the world – the English pub, French café, German beer garden, American tavern, Italian coffee house. Oldenburg provides a history and social structure of each institution, and discusses how the third place contributed to the community’s well-being. His point is that America seldom adopted such associational habits, and even if we did (such as in the tavern or historic Main Street), most of these meeting centers have been eliminated – either by zoning them out of existence or as a result of a rapacious commercialism of everything that simply doesn’t allow for them. For example, pubs in England are mostly owned by corporations now, who are more interested in the bottom line than providing a neighborhood hangout for locals; consequently, they’ve consolidated many of the pubs, building fewer large ones that don’t have the same atmosphere or serve the same community function. Oldenburg traces the beginnings and evolution of many similar third places – his point being that they seldom exist anymore, especially in the U.S., and community suffers as a result. He connects their disappearance to the declining levels of association in general, along with the rise of a more individualistic, consumerist lifestyle that’s evident in our suburbs, car-oriented culture, and shopping malls; and while some have argued that malls are the new community, Oldenburg maintains they cannot substitute for third places since their purpose is strictly commercial – unlike the typical "Cheers" bar where camaraderie is as important as the purchase of beer. At the book’s end, the author offers an optimistic assessment, writing that "The days of the ‘private citizen’ … will give way to the publicly-concerned or civic-minded individual with whom our hope lies." Fifteen years after Oldenburg’s comment, circumstances have not improved and, in fact, the alienation, compartmentalization, insensitivity, and corporatization of American life that he documents have intensified – and there are even fewer third places.


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