Joelle Axton Reflecting: “Third Spaces” and Good Neighbor

by | Mar 15, 2021 | Principles, The Good Neighbor Experience

As you know, I’ve been sharing my explorations of the Good Neighbor House and interviews with Good Neighbor’s Resident Volunteers and Leadership Team. Today I want to share the first part of a thoughtful reflection written by Joelle Axton, a long-time Resident Volunteer. (You can read about my interview with Joelle here.) 

Joelle uses a book she has read to reflect on how that author’s views help us see / think about Good Neighbor as an integral and meaningful “third place” in our individual and communal lives. This is the first half of her reflection. I’ll share the second half tomorrow. In this first part, Joelle explains the idea of “third place” and lists the characteristics that define these kinds of places.

The Quiet Work of the Third Place (part one): by Joelle Axton

In The Great Good Place, Ray Oldenburg explores the importance of what he terms the “third place.” He argues that in addition to the home (“first place”) and the workplace (“second place”), thriving communities and civil societies are upheld by public spaces such as coffee shops, public libraries, community centers, and parks. Third places are public spaces where people go to relax, engage in conversation, practice hobbies, and build social ties outside of the family or workplace context. Oldenburg gives several historical examples of how such public spaces served as catalysts for significant political and social reforms including the agora in Greek democracy, London coffee houses during the Enlightenment, and French cafés in the French Revolution. Oldenburg identifies the following eight characteristics as markers of third places:

  1. On neutral ground: People can come and go as they please without feeling like they are intruding on someone else’s space, and all people feel welcome in the space. 
  2. A leveling place: “Worldly status claims must be checked at the door in order that all within may be equals.” Those from higher and lower status equally benefit from having a place in which they can interact with others for the sheer joy of it, without protecting or compensating for their status. 
  3. Conversation is the main activity:Nothing more clearly indicates a third place than that the talk there is good; that it is lively, scintillating, colorful, and engaging.” Though other activities may occur in third places, the main draw is the enjoyable conversation that occurs alongside those activities. 
  4. Accessibility and accommodation: The convenient location, hours, and layout of the third place allows people to easily seek out social interaction when and where they need it. 
  5. The regulars: “It is the regulars, whatever their number on any given occasion, who feel at home in a place and set the tone of conviviality. It is the regulars whose mood and manner provide the infectious and contagious style of interaction and whose acceptance of new faces is crucial.”
  6. A low profile: Because profit-driven commercial entities often discourage loitering, third places tend to exist in older or less expensive physical structures. Oldenburg adds, “…the low visual profile typical of third places parallels the low profile they have in the minds of those who frequent them.” Those who benefit from third places do not give much consideration to the place itself. 
  7. A playful Mood: “Here joy and acceptance reign over anxiety and alienation. This is the magical element that warms the insider… Invariably the suggestion is made, ‘Let’s do this again!’ The third place exists because of that urge.”
  8. A home away from home: Third places are characterized by the warmth and comfort offered by good homes. They are also places where people go to relax, be restored, and escape the stress of the outside world. 

[Ray Oldenburg, The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community (Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2005)]

Do you have any “third places”?

I think this list rewards re-reading and re-thinking and can help us see more fully the value of the Good Neighbor House in our community. Tomorrow, I’ll share how Joelle connects this list with her experiences at Good Neighbor.