Intro and Interview by Amien Essif
Ray Oldenburg wrote in his 1989 book The Great Good Place that there are certain neighborhood hang-outs—bars, cafés, street corners, park benches—that are vital to the health of a community. These “third places,” as he calls them, provide a space between the formalities of home (the first place) and work (the second) where folks can gather just to gather. This is where the “informal public life” happens, and though Oldenburg was the first to name them “third places,” they’ve been in our cultural mythology since the beginning. Think: Founding Fathers gathering at the City Tavern in Philadelphia to talk democracy. Or Norm installing himself on his bar stool every prime-time evening on Cheers. Or “Joe’s” from the folk-parody song in Christopher Guest’s A Mighty Wind: “Where friendly folks can gather / and raise the rafters high / with songs and tales of yesteryear / until they say goodbye.”
The only problem is, Oldenburg pointed out twenty years ago that America had lost half of its third places to suburbanization and gentrification since the second world war. And things, apparently, have only gotten worse.
Last month, I interviewed Professor Steve Balkin, a professor of economics at Roosevelt University in Chicago who contributed to Oldenburg’s 2001 book Celebrating the Third Place. In the words of Oldenburg, Balkin “devoted countless hours and seemingly boundless energy” to a campaign to save Chicago’s famous Maxwell Street, an open-air market that “was a living and vibrant example of that harmonious diversity to which politicians and educators give lip service. It was an American dream realized.”
This third place, however, was “relocated” in 1994 by a university and a Chicago mayor whose unspoken agenda was to push this diversity further away from a gentrified campus area.
Logan Square is another neighborhood in Chicago that is facing gentrification. With a twist of irony, however, “third places” have seemingly become the culprit. Middle-class and bohemian coffee shops are moving in to the neighborhood and explicitly calling themselves “third places,” paying homage to Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place.
This is not uncommon: Gentrifying populations in the 21st century are often more conscious of creating community, but are unconscious of how their version of community tends to push out the existing, working-class community. At the “farmers market” on Logan Boulevard, for example, potatoes cost $4 a pound.
In this interview with The Gazine, Professor Balkin discusses the relationship between third places and gentrification, middle-class and working-class culture, and the city’s role in all this.
Dr. Steve Balkin:
“Third places and gentrification are two different things. I think what the current urban policy is—whether it’s explicit or implicit—is that public gathering places for the upper-classes are to be encouraged. Third places are perceived as a positive thing about a neighborhood and cities want to increase real estate values so that they can increase property values. But to them, third places for the rich are “good” while third places for the poor are “bad.”
This isn’t true at all, of course. Third places for poor people are places where they can transmit information about economic opportunities. This public social interaction is good for everybody, but the explicit policy seems to be that if you have a place that brings a concentration of lower-income people, the perception by city hall is that it’s a bunch of gangsters and is something that will bring down real estate values and something to discourage in all sorts of ways…
I have an opinion about gentrifying places. I believe in integration, not just race integration but class integration. So I don’t think anybody should be excluded from coming into a neighborhood. But if students artists and yuppies want to come into a working-class neighborhood, they should respect that they’re the new-comers. And they should respect the people and the norms and the institutions and the lifestyles of people who are already there first.
The way it usually works is that these gentrifying forces—and I don’t know that they explicitly think about this—but the yuppies, artists and students who come into this neighborhood think ‘We want this neighborhood done over based on our lifestyles. And the people who are existing here are an impediment to that.’ And it then becomes a culture war. Unfortunately the army of realtors are with the upper-income people. So if a realtor says I want to tear down this apartment where low income people live, the gentrifying elements in the neighborhood will say ‘Hey that’s great,’ instead of defending their neighbors’ right to live there.”