Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A Great Good Place

A recent article in the Style section of the Sunday New York Times discussed a day in the life of the Hot Chocolate Sparrow in Orleans, Massachusetts. From 6:30 in the morning until 9:00 at night, this small coffee shop serves as a place to grab a cup of coffee to go, visit over a "cuppa joe" with friends, or work from a virtual office with a laptop. Like the bar called Cheers from the sitcom of the same name, the Hot Chocolate Sparrow is a place "where everyone knows your name." Over the course of the day, the shop will be visited by contractors, mothers of young children with toddlers in tow, teenagers, web designers, and accountants. The shop serves as a hub of activity and interaction for the small Cape Cod town in which it is located, and as such plays a vital role in the life of the people there.

The Sparrow, and many other coffee shops like it, or neighborhood bars, or barber shops epitomize the concept of a third place pioneered in the book The Great Good Place by Ray Oldenburg, an urban sociologist in Florida. According to Oldenburg's book, published in 1989, a "first place" is home and a "second place" is work. A third place is a location where people can convene, be themselves, and relax. Third places, "host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work." As stated on the website for Project for Public Spaces, third places "promote social equality by leveling the status of guests, provide a setting for grassroots politics, create habits of public association, and offer psychological support to individuals and communities." In the process, these places facilitate the creation of what Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam calls social capital in his seminal book Bowling Alone.

I was struck as I read the article about the concept of third places in the lives of adolescents. The article on the Sparrow said, "At 3 p.m., the middle school and high school students storm the candy counter for the homemade caramel turtles and penny delights. Macky O’Hara, 12, gets a kids’ hot chocolate for $1.75; not too hot (140 degrees versus 155 for grown-up hot chocolate), and whipped cream is free for children only. Melissa Rivers, 16, a high school junior, and her friend Drew Green, 19, sit at a table sharing a small bag of Fritos, then leave after 20 minutes, without having bought a thing. “Normally, I get an ├ęclair, but I didn’t have money today,” Melissa said. “It’s just nice to be out of the cold.” While we can wish that these students bought something in the store, we can feel assured that they're hanging out with other teenagers on a weekday afternoon, they're enjoying each other's company, and we can hope that they're growing up.

In 21st Century society America, what are the third places for young men and young women? Where do they go when they want to be out of the house after school or on the weekends? Where are the places that they can see friends, be recognized for who they are, and be involved in the development of social capital for teenagers?

When I asked a group of 8th grade students where they like to hang out on weekends, they named places like the mall, coffee shops, bowling alleys, parks or the gym. They also complained about a local mall whose policy stated that people under the age of 18 cannot walk around unaccompanied by an adult in the evenings or on weekends. They may only go back and forth to a movie where they can share in the activity of watching a film but hopefully, they're not speaking with each other in the theater (sorry, but I'm still a purist about etiquette in the cinema.) On the one hand, I was heartened that they have a variety of places to go; on the other hand, I become concerned when we begin to take away places for young men and young women to visit with one another. One could argue that like water, teens will find a place to go, and if we don't give them the space they need, they may create it in places less desirable. I know the issues that led to this temporally based ban at the mall, and I understand the frustration that places have dealing with rowdy, and yes sometimes even violent, teenagers. The problems are real, and they require solutions.

However, we need to make sure that the way in which we resolve the problem does not exacerbate the issue or even worse, create more issues down the road when these teenagers become adults. We must offer them a space to engage in dialogue on their own, see their peers, and learn to enjoy each other's company if we want them to learn how to be civil toward one another, how to view themselves as social beings interacting with different people, and invest in their society. If one of our concerns as a democracy is a decreasing level of commitment to the democratic process on the part of our citizens, then we need to seek out ways for adolescents to feel connected to their society and their government. Home and school can provide some of this formal education, but we must give young men and young women informal places where they can grow into civic minded people by discussing issues, great and small, with their fellow budding citizens..

As the Head of Crossroads College Preparatory School, I have the opportunity to watch our students engage in meaningful discussion on important topics, and I feel hopeful for our society. I hope that we continue to provide them with the third places they need so they can become the people we wish them to be and the citizens our country will need.