Losing Our Third Places
A Commentary By Froma Harrop
A story that captivated New York City: A group of elderly Korean-Americans had been gathering at a McDonald's in Queens for conversation and fellowship. They'd sit there all day long, sometimes sharing a $1.39 package of fries. The hangout was so popular that friends from other neighborhoods would travel to join them.
The restaurant's management fretted that the old folks were monopolizing precious table space. Other patrons would demand their money back because they had no place to sit and eat their meal.
The restaurant tried several strategies. It put signs at the tables announcing a 20-minute limit. They were ignored, as were direct requests to leave.
Eventually, the restaurant called the police to remove the sitters, angering many in the area's large Korean-American community. They called for a worldwide boycott of McDonald's.
The public opinion on the matter seemed clearly on the side of the restaurant. McDonald's is a business, not a senior center. And many know the feeling of wanting to sit and consume food but not finding a table because others have monopolized them.
But there's no denying that the elderly need a "third place," as this McDonald's had become. "Third place" is a term coined by University of West Florida sociologist Raymond Oldenburg, referring to a social gathering spot other than one's home or place of employment.
A third place is especially important for retirees no longer reporting to an office, factory or shop. But it is also becoming increasingly necessary for telecommuters, who operate at home and need to escape their four walls.
A third place can be a bookstore, a tavern, a coffee shop, a church center. The ideal third place is inexpensive, open to people of all incomes, within walking distance and friendly to conversation.
The etiquette of using third places, however, is tricky, and the elderly aren't the only problematic squatters. Working stiffs visiting a Starbucks on coffee break often feel miffed when they find all the good seats taken by students lingering over their laptops, dregs drying in their coffee cups.
But what's the solution? Starbucks offers at least the illusion of an unhurried coffeehouse culture. The feeling would change radically if it installed parking-type meters at the tables.
Another third-place dilemma is that such locales may turn into second homes for people with no other place to go -- e.g., the unwashed and the mentally disabled. But monitoring this is a balancing act. Third places thrive on being a mix of very different types.
Which brings us back to the elderly Korean-Americans at the McDonald's. They had plenty of other places to hang out, senior centers, for example. They apparently didn't want to be surrounded by other old people. They wanted a perch from which they could see bustling life in all its variety -- and who could blame them for that?
Casinos know how to profit off older people's sense of isolation. For someone with reduced mobility, slot machines may offer a rare outlet for excitement. Casinos draw in these customers with cheap buffet meals and easy wheelchair access. Some send buses to retirement centers.
Sadly, third places seem to be disappearing. Bakeries that provided all-day sitting for leisured neighborhood folk can't afford city rents. Drugstore lunch counters are pretty much gone. And bookshops are closing (a moment of silence for those wonderful cafes in the now-closed Borders bookstores).
Third places are amenities we should be loath to lose. But let's be realistic: If a community wants a McDonald's to serve as an all-day meeting space for its elderly, the community should open one. Surely, there must be a way to distinguish between lingering and loitering.
Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com.
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