Places to Share Conversation And a Soda

Ray Oldenburg is a student of "third places," the informal public-gathering spots that serve to weave communities together but have largely disappeared in many subdivisions.

A sociology professor at the University of West Florida in Pensacola, Oldenburg has written "The Great Good Place" with the lengthy subtitle, "Cafes, coffee shops, community centers, beauty parlors, general stores, bars, hangouts, and how they get you through the day."

Mr. Oldenburg says a key indicator of the decline in public life is the vanishing drugstore soda fountain. "In 1910 we had 150,000 in the United States. We can only account for 150 today. That was the best of the third places because it was simply the most inclusive."

But Oldenburg is optimistic. Consumers are starting to demand "third places," he observes. "Now, when people ask who is going to plan the communities of the future, we can answer, 'It's the users who are going to have a say, and it's high time.' "

But aren't developers behind the traditional neighborhoods?

Yes, and some have been accused of marketing community, but not delivering it. What you have to realize is that people are used to growing up in subdivisions, and they don't want to give up what they've had. On the other hand, people do want community increasingly. It's not going to be easy for developers.

What obstacles lie ahead?

We can't really have community under existing zoning ordinances. We have 'negative zoning,' which means there's nothing but streets and private homes. There's no public life there, and the best of public life used to be local, so we have almost prohibited community by law.

Where's the resistance?

A lot of people still like what we have. The American dream is to have a large house on a large lot, with a view, if possible. We sought privacy, and I don't think it ever occurred to us that the cost of all this would be community itself. Many men find community at the workplace.... They change their tune a little after they retire, but a bit too late. And now more women are working too.

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