Between a Job and a Third Place

I have a strong interest in ideas of space and place. Whether it’s the use of places as sites of memory and memorialization, the construction of spaces for expression and community, or the mapping of different sorts of activities onto the social landscape, my interest is always sparked by the ways people think of and use physical and metaphorical space.

So a couple of posts about “third places” caught my attention. The first is a definition and short historical examination of the third place in American life; the second, a contribution to the current buzz about Starbucks’ policy on photography inside their stores. In the first, we learn of the basis and post-War decline of third places, while the second describes Starbucks’ conscious effort to craft new third places appropriate to the demands of the ’90s.

So what’s a third place? The rise of industrialized labour (including the service sector) over the course of the 19th century was paralleled by a new focus on the division of space into public and private spheres. Against the pressures of the “public” world of politics and commerce, the family and home were constructed as an asylum of sorts, a place where even the lowliest working man and we are speaking here, for the most part, of men, despite the large numbers of women in the workforce) could escape the dramas of workaday life. Likewise, the home as a site of consumption was opposed to the workplace as site of production: at home, a man was free to enjoy the fruits of his labour.

This geography of social life was felt across the board, in domains as diverse as the development of modern art (e.g. the turn from massive, celebratory historical or mythological scenes to more appropriately-sized images drawn from the world familiar to an urban peit bourgeoisie), political economy (a common critique of Marx’s work is that his view of economics ends at the threshold of the home, and so ignores the contribution that women’s free domestic labour contributed to lowering the costs of the reproduction of labour), the characterization of women as consumers and men as producers (even as women and children toiled away in the mills of the North East, the sweatshops of the urban centers, and the farms of the rural hinterlands), and so on. It is not too much of stretch to say that the multiply inflected opposition between public and private lies at the core of the modern Western worldview–consider our efforts to legitimize what goes on between consenting adults “behind closed doors”.

Third places were spaces in which the conceptually separate worlds of public and private were mediated. For instance, while complaining about unfair labour practices at work could get one fired, and complaining at home might get you sympathy but rarely any satisfactory understanding, the local pub offered a place for workers to share their complaints without fear of management repercussions. Pubs, cafes, restaurants, social clubs, parks, shopping centers (such as the famous Parisian Arcades), museums, even department stores became consciously seen as spaces for sociability, more inclusive than the confines of the home but free of the pressures of the workplace. Partaking of equal parts commerce (networking, deal-making, job-tip-seeking, and other economic activities thrive in third places), politics (Marx’ International met in a pub just south of the British Museum; Hitler’s putsch was launched from a Munich Biergarten, Jewish immigrant socialism thrived in the cafes of the Lower East Side), and a highly constructed privacy (maintained as often through attitude and discretion as through physical barriers). third places provided an outlet ofr expression that neither the workplace or the home could produce.

It is no overstatement to say that the third place has virtually disappeared from American life in the wake of WWII. The rise of suburbs and the interstate beltways ahve moved our homes ever-further from our workplaces and scattered our coworkers–the people that we are most likely to know well–across wide swaths of suburban geography. Americans are often surprised when visiting Europe at the great deal of activity in pubs, cafes, and other public spaces–the piazzas of Italy, the Biergartens of Germany, the British locals. Seeing a family, complete with toddlers, socializing in a smoky pub in Aberystwyth was one of my more surreal moments abroad, running deeply counter to my conceptions of public space. Europeans, on the other hand, often find American bar culture to be highly suprficial, over-eroticized, and asocial.

Over the last decade, however, Americans have seen the rise of new kinds of third places. The Internet has probably been the most significant force in the creation of new spaces for expression and sociability, despite the questions of identity and security that have accompanied its penetration into American consciousness. But the Internet cannot completely fill this apparent need for social interaction. One important factor of third places is their local-ness, their ability to focus on local concerns and identities, and the Internet has, so far, been very lacking in addressing local concerns.

The late ’80s began to see an upsurge in coffee houses, wine bars, brew pubs, and other post-Yuppie third places. At the same time, marketeers began more consciously exploiting the sociality of such places as part of corporate branding efforts. Among the most successful of these establishments was Starbucks, at the same time fueling and exploiting a newly-developed taste for gourmet specialty coffees. ALthough a number of factors played into Starbucks’ success–most notably the disaggregation of the American mass market into an ever-multiplying array of micro-niche markets), among them is their self-conscious efforts at creating third places where coffee-drinking would provide the focus for social existence.

Of course, its a different social existence than that of the local pub in Wales. Starbucks is, first and foremost, a professional’s third place. By virtue of price, design, and location, Starbucks makes it’s audience clear. What’s more, Starbucks is a space for small groups of such people, or solitary people. I once had a housemate who would go to Starbucks to write poetry, apparently drawn by its literary atmosphere. It is unlikely that the next revolution will start in a Starbucks.

But the attempt to capture “third place-ness” as part of a corporate brand is a risky one, and as Brian of Op/Edit (home to the second post mentioned above) points out, the demands of corporate existence are often at odds with the social needs of a third place. A long-time Starbucks employee, Brian describes the origins of managers’ restrictions on in-store photography as a means to combat corporate espionage at a time when the third-placiization of Starbucks was a relatively new and shaky premise. Starbucks has been highly successful in this effort, however, and now managers’ attacks on photographers mainly hamper the fairly widespread social behaviour of taking snapshots of your friends. Corporate concerns demand that Starbucks control the use of its branded space, a demand that is ultimately opposed to the needs of a third place.

I am not about to predict the imminent demise of Starbucks–Americans have shown time and again their willingness to adapt to the social controls of corporatized space, and I doubt that, some miscreants aside, much will come of efforts to subvert Starbucks’ control.

Between a Job and a Third Place

I have a strong interest in ideas of space and place. Whether it’s the use of places as sites of memory and memorialization, the construction of spaces for expression and community, or the mapping of different sorts of activities onto the social landscape, my interest is always sparked by the ways people think of and use physical and metaphorical space.

So a couple of posts about “third places” caught my attention. The first is a definition and short historical examination of the third place in American life; the second, a contribution to the current buzz about Starbucks’ policy on photography inside their stores. In the first, we learn of the basis and post-War decline of third places, while the second describes Starbucks’ conscious effort to craft new third places appropriate to the demands of the ’90s.

So what’s a third place? The rise of industrialized labour (including the service sector) over the course of the 19th century was paralleled by a new focus on the division of space into public and private spheres. Against the pressures of the “public” world of politics and commerce, the family and home were constructed as an asylum of sorts, a place where even the lowliest working man and we are speaking here, for the most part, of men, despite the large numbers of women in the workforce) could escape the dramas of workaday life. Likewise, the home as a site of consumption was opposed to the workplace as site of production: at home, a man was free to enjoy the fruits of his labour.

This geography of social life was felt across the board, in domains as diverse as the development of modern art (e.g. the turn from massive, celebratory historical or mythological scenes to more appropriately-sized images drawn from the world familiar to an urban peit bourgeoisie), political economy (a common critique of Marx’s work is that his view of economics ends at the threshold of the home, and so ignores the contribution that women’s free domestic labour contributed to lowering the costs of the reproduction of labour), the characterization of women as consumers and men as producers (even as women and children toiled away in the mills of the North East, the sweatshops of the urban centers, and the farms of the rural hinterlands), and so on. It is not too much of stretch to say that the multiply inflected opposition between public and private lies at the core of the modern Western worldview–consider our efforts to legitimize what goes on between consenting adults “behind closed doors”.

Third places were spaces in which the conceptually separate worlds of public and private were mediated. For instance, while complaining about unfair labour practices at work could get one fired, and complaining at home might get you sympathy but rarely any satisfactory understanding, the local pub offered a place for workers to share their complaints without fear of management repercussions. Pubs, cafes, restaurants, social clubs, parks, shopping centers (such as the famous Parisian Arcades), museums, even department stores became consciously seen as spaces for sociability, more inclusive than the confines of the home but free of the pressures of the workplace. Partaking of equal parts commerce (networking, deal-making, job-tip-seeking, and other economic activities thrive in third places), politics (Marx’ International met in a pub just south of the British Museum; Hitler’s putsch was launched from a Munich Biergarten, Jewish immigrant socialism thrived in the cafes of the Lower East Side), and a highly constructed privacy (maintained as often through attitude and discretion as through physical barriers). third places provided an outlet ofr expression that neither the workplace or the home could produce.

It is no overstatement to say that the third place has virtually disappeared from American life in the wake of WWII. The rise of suburbs and the interstate beltways ahve moved our homes ever-further from our workplaces and scattered our coworkers–the people that we are most likely to know well–across wide swaths of suburban geography. Americans are often surprised when visiting Europe at the great deal of activity in pubs, cafes, and other public spaces–the piazzas of Italy, the Biergartens of Germany, the British locals. Seeing a family, complete with toddlers, socializing in a smoky pub in Aberystwyth was one of my more surreal moments abroad, running deeply counter to my conceptions of public space. Europeans, on the other hand, often find American bar culture to be highly suprficial, over-eroticized, and asocial.

Over the last decade, however, Americans have seen the rise of new kinds of third places. The Internet has probably been the most significant force in the creation of new spaces for expression and sociability, despite the questions of identity and security that have accompanied its penetration into American consciousness. But the Internet cannot completely fill this apparent need for social interaction. One important factor of third places is their local-ness, their ability to focus on local concerns and identities, and the Internet has, so far, been very lacking in addressing local concerns.

The late ’80s began to see an upsurge in coffee houses, wine bars, brew pubs, and other post-Yuppie third places. At the same time, marketeers began more consciously exploiting the sociality of such places as part of corporate branding efforts. Among the most successful of these establishments was Starbucks, at the same time fueling and exploiting a newly-developed taste for gourmet specialty coffees. ALthough a number of factors played into Starbucks’ success–most notably the disaggregation of the American mass market into an ever-multiplying array of micro-niche markets), among them is their self-conscious efforts at creating third places where coffee-drinking would provide the focus for social existence.

Of course, its a different social existence than that of the local pub in Wales. Starbucks is, first and foremost, a professional’s third place. By virtue of price, design, and location, Starbucks makes it’s audience clear. What’s more, Starbucks is a space for small groups of such people, or solitary people. I once had a housemate who would go to Starbucks to write poetry, apparently drawn by its literary atmosphere. It is unlikely that the next revolution will start in a Starbucks.

But the attempt to capture “third place-ness” as part of a corporate brand is a risky one, and as Brian of Op/Edit (home to the second post mentioned above) points out, the demands of corporate existence are often at odds with the social needs of a third place. A long-time Starbucks employee, Brian describes the origins of managers’ restrictions on in-store photography as a means to combat corporate espionage at a time when the third-placiization of Starbucks was a relatively new and shaky premise. Starbucks has been highly successful in this effort, however, and now managers’ attacks on photographers mainly hamper the fairly widespread social behaviour of taking snapshots of your friends. Corporate concerns demand that Starbucks control the use of its branded space, a demand that is ultimately opposed to the needs of a third place.

I am not about to predict the imminent demise of Starbucks–Americans have shown time and again their willingness to adapt to the social controls of corporatized space, and I doubt that, some miscreants aside, much will come of efforts to subvert Starbucks’ control.

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