Pull up a chair - if you can find one
The loneliness epidemic shouldn't be a surprise
A couple weeks ago I met a friend at an Au Bon Pain in New York City and was stunned to see only stools at high counters along the windows, no tables. It was, however, exactly what I’d been talking to Mark Wilson at Fast Company magazine about. He was reporting on the way chain restaurants are removing seats, reducing space, and focusing on mobile ordering. Fewer staffers, more profit.
Mark had called me to ask what effect I thought this would have on the people who’d come to depend on inexpensive chains as a place to hang out. His article is now out and you can read it here:
The Financial Times calls the decline of San Francisco, one of the most beautiful cities on the planet, a “doom loop.” I’m now wondering if the loss of seating at chain restaurants is part of the same process.
There used to be many places to hang out, commercial establishments that understood their important social role. Ray once listed them: inns, saloons, general stores, candy stores, soda fountains, coffee shops, diners, bowling alleys, skating rinks, barber shops, and hair salons, as well as beer halls, pubs, and bistros.
Street life is important, too, but in general a third place works best if it provides a roof over your head. Beyond that, not much is necessary. Most people like to have a table as well as chairs, and beverages are common (no wonder we often call our hangouts “watering holes”).
A third place doesn’t have to be fancy. It does need to be free or cheap if it’s going to be a place where everyone feels welcome. In times past, third-place activities could take place along side commercial transactions. Not all the men hanging out in a barber shop were there to get a shave. Fast-food restaurants didn’t mind having some slow customers, too - teenagers or older folk who’d buy cokes and sit for a couple of hours. I knew a local politician who held court at the McDonalds every morning.
But, as Mark Wilson explains, corporations are doing away with tables, taking away one of the few remaining third places in many communities.
Inspired by his own suburban life in Pensacola, Florida, [Ray] Oldenburg explored the role that restaurants and cafés, among other spots, play in our social fabric and civic life. He saw these third places appearing throughout history, from the agora (public squares) of Greek democracy to the taverns that fomented the American Revolution.
To create a proper third place, explains Karen Christensen, a writer and editor who enjoyed a multi-decade friendship and collaboration with Oldenburg, “you almost always need tables, some kind of food, and it can’t be too expensive.” She continues: “In third places, talking is the key, and if you’re worried about being pushed out the door or about the prices, you’re not going to relax.” Barbershops, churches, and libraries are all third places, too, and there was even a time in the 20th century when post offices were a popular hangout, Christensen notes. But as these sites recede—and U.S. cities remove benches from parks—the prospect of having a lengthy, inexpensive meetup with friends exists almost nowhere today but at low-cost restaurants.
And if those restaurants don’t have seats—if their app experience is more or less the only experience—they aren’t really a place for us at all. Swing by a Starbucks flooded with mobile orders, and you’ll see just how insignificant the third place has become. It’s why, earlier this year, when Schultz returned to Starbucks and announced a new initiative, an “authentic digital third place” of pixel-built NFTs and other digital rewards, Christensen rolled her eyes.
Longing for a mall
What’s left? A recent article tells us that Target stores are now a third place for pre-teens, even though they have to stand around or wander around, and presumably have to have their parents drive them there. The author writes:
My daughter and her preteen friends hang out at Target. Not to go shopping; they just walk its aisles in herds, cruise the place, look for other groups of preteens. Maybe get trinkets. The big red bullseye has become their social space. They will come of age right next to the shampoo and the affordable clothes and the TP.
I can’t tell you how sad this makes me. These kids have tech that makes Atari game systems look like cave paintings from the Mr. Belvedere era. Plenty of diseases have been eradicated or tamed for them. But their third places really, really suck.
This reminded me of the controversy in China when retired Chinese people discovered IKEA cafeterias. In the past, there were inexpensive eateries and even “hot-water” houses where residents could bring their own cup and tea leaves. But the concept of a third place is becoming known in China, as you can see from this photo, sent by the person working on a translation of our book.
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Pull up a chair
San Francisco’s doom loop may be something distinct, but the loss of seating is a similar process: we have fewer places to gather, so we become less comfortable with strangers, more isolated, and lonelier, and in many cases more vulnerable to online and TV propaganda. I used to say “Bring back the trains,” but today I’m thinking about how to “Bring back the chairs.”
Here’s a bit from a marvelous, inspiring little book called City Comforts:
… we landed in Seattle. The sky was typical gray. It was a letdown to be back. I started comparing about how shabby the city looked and how Seattle’s built environment in no way measures up to the brilliance of its natural setting.
My friend agreed and then, in her absolutely sincere and comically perverse way, turned and said, “Which leaves us a tremendous opportunity to improve things. It’s not as though we live in Paris - what would we do then?”
The first nest of bluebirds has already fledged (flown). I knew the last baby was gone when I saw a wren going into the box. Bird housing, too, is in short supply, so I’ve put up a second bluebird box.
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