I remember my first visit to Alkmaar, The Netherlands. It’s a town of nearly 100,000 people located north of Amsterdam, just up A9. It’s known mostly for cheeses, Olympic cycling, and the fact that John Lennon’s first guitar was made there. To give my Texas friends a bit of deeper understanding/identity, they defeated the Spaniards who were laying siege to their city in the 1500’s…in effect, winning their “Alamo.” To give them still more understanding/identity, a very large beer museum is there, too.
Our hosts had procured the bicycles we’d need for the three-week stay and as they were giving us the general tour I made note of the narrow/tall nature of the homes and even the streets. I got a story about the Dutch national soccer team and how they’re known for a very controlled & tight passing game that requires discipline, and the reason all the players are very comfortable with opponents close to them is because they learn how to play in the streets…which are all narrow. So, the architecture of the cities (which are all on high limited higher grounds as the country is below sea-level) affects the lifestyle of the country even to the style of play in sport.
Not long after that, I learned that housing space is limited so all the houses are thin and taller…and generally it would be hard to host a party if more than 6 or 8 people were there. I also learned that most folks didn’t spend many evenings in their homes. Again, architecture & city planning affects the lifestyle of the country.
I noted that every evening after dinner folks would get out of their homes and head to either the parks with friends, a local pub or the town square. And their town square is a true town square. It is about the size of a football field with, in their case, the Cheese Market on one side, a canal on the other, and restaurants/clubs on the other two. Branching out from that hub is a series of places to grab ice cream or tea or pie all along the side streets.
Any given summer night you’d see entire families hanging out in the square (laden with tables and park benches–some reserved for restaurant patrons but most were open to whoever wanted them), the moms laughing and chatting about the day, the kids eating ice cream or playing with their toys, the dads arguing sports, teenagers in clumps waiting for the dance club to open. Old men playing chess, old ladies making fun of their old husbands both behind their back and to their faces. But “community” happened and it was driven by architecture & planning. First, because the homes were comparatively small so you kinda wanted to get out after the dinner dishes were put away, and secondly there was a welcoming hub to grab a beverage of choice and you could visit until you wanted to go to bed. It lit up well at night, too.
Even in our short 3-week stay, we began to chat with locals who recognized us and asked us about life in America and how we liked Holland. Small talk, in most cases, but you’d be amazed at how animated they’d get when they discovered that on that day in Texas it was 35 degrees Celsius (roughly 104 F) or how 16-year-olds all drove a car (the age is 18 in Holland, and it’s very expensive to get a license). They had all watched COPS and knew enough about Texas to ask if we all owned guns. But every night we’d head down to the square and find ourselves conversing or playing a game of pick-up ball at the park or whatever.
Sociologists are studying the lack of “informal public life” in post-war America. See, prior to World War II, the United States, by and large had this informal public life that took place on Main Street in any given town. There were drug stores the kids could go to that had a “fountain” where you could get shakes and maybe a burger. There was a hair salon or barber shop. You could grab a beer at the one bar in town. America had thriving small to mid-size towns where these informal public gatherings took place. Houses had front porches. You knew your neighbors because you saw them. Architecture and design of the cities provided the informal get-togethers that made life enjoyable.
One sociologist, Ray Oldenburg, described it this way:
The typical suburban home is easy to leave behind as it’s occupants move to another…there are no sad farewells at the local taverns or the corner store because there are no local taverns or corner stores. Indeed, there is often more encouragement to leave a given subdivision than to stay in it, for neither the homes nor the neighborhoods are equipped to see families or individuals through the cycle of life. Each is designed for families of particular sizes, incomes and ages. There is little sense of place and even less opportunity to put down roots.
What that means is that you don’t make friends by happenstance in the ebb and flow of life. You likely move out of one neighborhood into the next once you get the raise/promotion. You don’t have a gathering spot where you can bump into folks you know. Seeing friends has to be a prearranged deal. Oldenburg says, “A lively round of after-dinner conversation isn’t as simple as a walk to the corner pub, one has to host the dinner.”
There’s also a look at the architecture that isolates us: No front porch, garages in the front, 8-foot privacy fences, etc. Add to that the nature of our lifestyles that almost forces us to cocoon as we left home at 6AM to get to the job in the city and rolled in after a tough traffic drive at 6:30PM and we can get whatever movie or sport or entertainment options from our media room and never have to leave our house. And city planning hasn’t really helped, either. I mean, where do you go in Flower Mound if you don’t want to spend more than a few bucks (if any) but want to get out of the house?
This is where my thoughts have been driving me lately. I think our area needs a viable “3rd Space.” More on that in a second.
I can see pockets of “Main Street” in my suburb. Mostly, it takes place at little league parks or soccer fields through organized athletics. Sociologists have called the line-up of folding Wal-Mart chairs watching their kids practice as “America’s New Front Porch.” I’ve also seen it in subdivision designs, where they actually build a community pool and maybe a clubhouse. Our town tries with an area called Parker Square where they host some movie nights and such. And, yes, we have a Starbucks where you can gather with friends over a cup of coffee…and a barista might know your name/drink order. But even in those cases, you still generally have to call someone to meet you there.
And, obviously, there are churches that provide some levels of that community. But that seems driven by a particular night/day (usually Wednesdays and Sundays) and also into segments. Maybe there’s a class you’re taking while your kid is in the children’s deal. Or a mom’s group. Or a men’s small group. Teenagers. Senior citizens. So, while there’s some degree of community it’s often more formal than informal.
Most of you know that I’ve been bouncing this idea of informal community around. I mean, we all loved the idea behind the show “Cheers,” what is called a “3rd space”–besides home & work–where you can go and hang out with friends over a beer or soda and stay a while…
…and what I’d like to know from you…
…is what are the elements that would make up a “3rd Space” that you would go to frequently? A place where you could go by yourself and feel confident there would be at least one person you would know or run into that you could catch up with each and every time you stopped by. Some suggestions might be simple, like comfy chairs. Or no TV’s anywhere (or maybe one that’s brought out for the Ranger’s game or Super Bowl or whatever ONLY) with background music just loud enough to keep others from hearing it. Free Wi-Fi. $1 snacks/sodas. Other ideas might be nuanced, like a weekly champagne brunch, or a good selection of beers/scotch/whiskey/cigars. Open mike nights, or local garage band nights, or high school chamber ensembles. Poetry readings or art shows. Stuff like that.
So, if there was ONE “3rd Space” that you’d call your very own, what would you want to be like? What would the vibe be like? Is it even realistic?
Well, have at it, patrons!