Thoughts on Our Vanishing “Third Places”

In Ray Oldenburg’s article,  informal public gathering places are defined as our third places. When people live in metropolis, it seems obvious to distinguish personal residential and public places because we mainly live individually with less connections between neighborhood than suburb life. Throughout the whole article, I was thinking how did the “vanishing” word come out, since third places are everywhere. The question still exists in my mind, but I want to describe some thoughts based on my living environment in Beijing.

I was born on 90s and when I was young, I lived in a large yard with my parents. The large yard had several families, each family lived in their own house. Generally, there was no bathroom in the house, so either people live in the same yard built one or two and shared it or they went the public bathroom outside the yard.  Yards were lined together on two sides and made up with an alley which we call Hutong in China. During my time in the yard, I felt that neighbors did connect to each other well. Even though we didn’t stick together a lot like having parties a lot, it was common to see children play together and families helped mutually. There were groceries, hardware stores and diners in alleys, usually people who operated these places  also lived in the same alley which means a person was able to recognize most of people lived surrounded you most of time.

As Beijing grew as a more modern city, many alleys were dismantled and people moved to apartment buildings. Old neighborhood life nearly disappeared and this culture became history in books and memories. When my family moved to an apartment, we no longer had much touch with neighbors, neither others lived in apartment did. My parents even thought they weren’t our neighbors, they were just people who lived in the same building. Several buildings made a residential area with a name. At that time, third places were more like places between home and work places where we might pass everyday or went there for reasons. Before that, I mean when I lived in the yard, our yard could be the third place and people get together not only physically but also emotionally.

We all know nowadays the price of owning a house in China is still unbelievably increasing, besides of the vast amount of need, locating a residential area with existed or potential public facilities as many as possible also contributes to rising price. All people intend to live with nice neighbors and easily-reaching public places. Those old residential areas such as where I moved the first time also improved community services. However, these services were mostly for caring older adults, so some third places were built for gathering our grandparents to alleviate their loneliness at home.

From Oldenburg’s opinions, I agree with some benefits of third places that third places create convenience, entertainment and carefulness for residents. But for me most third places are too functional to make more emotional interaction with people there, and neighborhood bonding remains weak no matter I was in Beijing or in NYC. Is it a kind of vanishing?


Filed under Readings, Third Places

4 Responses to Thoughts on Our Vanishing “Third Places”

  1. admin

    As physical 3rd places vanish what replaces them? What gives us a sense of belonging or the ability to navigate?

  2. Deborah Koo

    Your description of where you grew really does sound like the kind of “Third Places” that Oldenburg was talking about. I can imagine the latest news being passed along from family to family or kid to kid as they went to/from the bathroom. It also goes to show that one change (locating bathrooms outside of the home) can really influence the community (or lack thereof) dynamic.

  3. Shixiao Wang

    I have the same feeling as you, when I was young my parents and I knew most of my neighbors. But now I even don’t know who live in the next door. China developed a lot, but the relationship among the people become less. I have miss the life that children play together and adults sitting together…

  4. Karen Ng

    I remember my mom used to tell me that when she was young, everyone knew each other because they had a place where everyone, in the building or the same street, would spend time in. Do you feel that the vanishing third place (the alleys) have led to less community interaction, and because of that, taken a toll on safety?

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