Third places

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What’s a quick way to take the pulse of a town or neighborhood? Travelers from John Steinbeck (“Travels with Charley”) to William Least Heat Moon (“Blue Highways”), along with a host of candidates for public office, have found that there are few better places to get a feel for an area than a local café.

The café is an example of what Ray Oldenberg (“The Great Good Place”) calls a “third place,” where people gather for the kind of informal public life that he argues is the lifeblood of civilization. A third place hosts people’s “regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings beyond the realms of home and work.”

Oldenberg laments the disappearance of third places across America. Independently owned small businesses are threatened everywhere, and along the main streets of small and not-so-small towns, the local café often serves as a canary in the coal mine of chain-store-ification that has seen the locus of activity move from the center to the edges of town, closer to the highways that are more likely to bring just-passing-by customers and to vacant land for the parking lots that new development requires.

In urban neighborhoods, the café-seeker suffers a similar plight. While there’s a coffee shop on nearly every corner, an independent café is increasingly hard to find.

You can get coffee in a café, but typically the only choice is between regular and decaf. Unlike coffee shops, cafés don’t have Wi-Fi. People come to eat and talk, not to stare at a laptop.

Cafés occupy a shrinking middle ground in the American culinary landscape. In contrast to one end of the spectrum, café fare isn’t fast food; you sit down on the premises to eat it. And unlike the other end, the person who takes your order is the same one who brings it; there’s no hierarchy of waiters and servers in a café.

At a classic café, you don’t have to ask for catsup because a bottle is left at every table and booth. It’s assumed that patrons will want catsup, which says something about the customers and the cuisine.

William Least Heat Moon, on his “journey into America,” sought out cafés because they provided what he called “honest food.” Honest food is unpretentious and unstandardized, which is in keeping with the general atmosphere of a café. A café is idiosyncratic. It reflects the personality of its proprietor and customers.

Author Fannie Flagg has said of her best-selling novel, “Strangely enough, the first character in ‘Fried Green Tomatoes’ was the café, and the town. I think a place can be as much a character in a novel as the people.”

The loss of a café, especially a long-standing one, is worth lamenting. Third places unite neighborhoods. They get people out of the house and the office, move them beyond the sphere of family and co-workers, put them in contact with the wider world.

But not the whole wide world, just a manageable slice. A third place is where you’re likely to run into someone you know, or get to know someone you otherwise might not encounter.

Cafés aren’t the only thing that serve this purpose. Oldenberg also mentions pubs, taverns, barbershops, drug stores, post offices. All of these constitute what he calls neutral ground:

“In order for the city and its neighborhoods to offer the rich and varied association that is their promise and their potential, there must be neutral ground upon which people may gather. There must be places where individuals may come and go as they please, in which none are required to play host, and in which all feel at home and comfortable.”

Left to ourselves, most of us will associate with those who are already in our circle. Third places enable us to enlarge that circle, and they give us somewhere besides home to spend time with the people who live and work in our neighborhood.

Like a good neighborhood, a good café has character — and characters. It doesn’t have to be a place where everyone knows your name, but it should be somewhere you’re comfortable, and somewhere you’re proud to bring a visitor.

The urban café affords a special pleasure to regular patrons. Unlike its small-town counterpart, where everyone is a regular, the urban café has both insiders and outsiders. One of life’s small pleasures is walking into a restaurant and being recognized. Even finer is to be greeted with those two words reserved for the true regular: “The usual?”