80 of 86 people found the following review helpful
on November 8, 1999
Ray Oldenburg's The Great Good Place, just issued in this paperback version, is a classic in the sociological literature on the social and cultural geography of American Culture. Taking it's place alongside The Road to Nowhere, much of Christopher Lasch's work and the writings of other distinguished students of the decline of place in America, Oldenburg's work is in many ways better than these precursors because he shows how and why we were on the way to creating a placeless culture even before the computer revolution exacerbated the tend. The wholesale and largely uncritical acceptance of the automobile, place-hostile zoning ordinances, and puritanical meddling have conspired to produce a culture which is rapidly extinguishing haunts and hangouts--the sort of real places of pure sociability which contribute so much to the quality of life and which Oldenburg sees missing in the narrow, money-grubbing, time-driven culture of late century Americans. His analysis of the English Pub, the German Beer Garden, the Viennese coffee house, and other authenic places brings a much needed antidote to the depressing sameness that is characteristic of the increasingly McDonalized society in which we live. Not giving in to pessimism and despair himself, Oldenburg offers wise and witty prescriptions for how we can turn this around and once again produce a "Great Good Place." His thesis is that we have produced this environment--we can produce a better one. This is social science at its best, and with this new paperback edition just published, it should be accessible to more readers than ever.
26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on February 6, 2006
Drawn by the concept of a "third place" as described by this book and referenced elsewhere, I thought I'd read to find out what this was about. In the end, this was a fascinating and thought provoking book. Mr. Oldenburg posits that much of our societal ills today are resultant from a lack of free association. That is, the places where people congregate / hang-out are disappearing because of urbanization, industrialization, etc. One example, the German beer garden (and its descendant in the US with early German immigrants) as a family affair - as, economically, there didn't seem to be any reason for such an institution in an "American" community, this venue slowly disappeared or devolved into the bars we know today - focused on serving alcohol to the subservient and willing. In fact, Oldenburg points out, the beer served in the beer garden was weaker than what we know today because the point was not the beer - the point was the association and conversation within the community, among families.
As we move towards a "private property society" and focus on "property rights" as we seem to understand them, the ability to be social, without prior planning, is slowly eroding. Simultaneously, the places to "hang out" are disappearing as a consumer driven market seems desirous of generating the most profit for the fewest people (corporations). Because of a desire for inexpensive goods, a local business, owned and operated by nearby residents, is next to impossible - especially in the face of the mass market competition from large corporations.
I think Oldenburg hits the nail squarely on the head. As I drive around (in a car-based economy), it's increasingly difficult to find a place to "hang out" and/or become a regular. (1) Restaurants are driven towards specific time limit for customers in hopes of turning a larger profit by serving more customers; (2) American bars are not conducive because service deteriorates if you choose not to imbibe and those that also serve food follow (1); and (3) the notion of coffee shops not driven by 1 or 2 are few and far between. Even assuming that there are such places of the "third place" variety, it more often than not requires a car to get there (not to mention paying to simply park near a place).
Anyone interested in property rights, humans as a social animal, and the notion of a "community," should read this book.
43 of 50 people found the following review helpful
on October 26, 2000
Oldenburg's scholarship here is a little fuzzy -- while I found myself agreeing with many of his points, much of his evidence seemed anecdotal. His cross-cultural comparisons were interesting: the French cafe and the Austrian coffeehouse are institutions that seem, well, very foreign to Americans.
There are no substantive mentions of hair salons or bookstores in this work. I'm not sure how they slipped into the title.
On the whole, this work raises interesting questions about the decline of public life and public space in American culture. Oldenburg throws a number of darts at the suburbs and poor urban planning, but seems to spend more time lamenting the lost innocence of small-town America than thinking about the future and how things could be turned around. There's a lot of thought-provoking material here, and I think this work represents a good jumping-off point for further consideration and research.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
The project of The Great Good Place is to demonstrate why public spaces-- particularly gathering spaces-- are essential to the health of the community. It is an interesting and attractive thesis-- one that will speak clearly to most of his intended audience. Who does not harbor a nostalgia (even if an inherited nostalgia) for the town pub or the "place where everybody knows your name"?
Oldenburg does a good job building his case. He looks at characteristics and benefits of third places and then chooses examples from history and other cultures to illustrate the ideas.
A friend of mine remarked that The Great Good Place was one good idea repeated over and over again for 300 page. Not entirely fair, but there is some truth to it. The book also suffers from being oversold. For instance, the publisher's subtitle implies that hair salons are part of the topics that are covered. In fact, they are barely even mentioned. I suppose that the publicity that this relatively academic text made it nearly irrestistible for the publishing house to try to spice things up for the average reader.
Honestly, three stars might be the most fair rating for the book. In addition to what feels like some occasionally thin material, I feel that the author elides or ignores the potential negatives of his third places. All the same, I ended up rating it four stars because I generally agreed with his ideas. That agreement made me predisposed to enjoy it. So for me, the fourth star is because I found it pleasant to read.
Recommended for people with an interest in the social value of public spaces.
21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on July 22, 2004
I'm fascinated by your review of Ray Oldenburg's book _The Great Good Place_ without have read it. That's rather like a child saying he doesn't like spinach without having tried it.
I first had the pleasure of meeting Ray when I was editor of _The World of Beer_ out of Milan, Italy, when Alan Eames ("The Beer King"), who damned well lived in a small town - 300 - in New Hampshire, recommend the book to me. After reading a copy I made a point to meet Ray upon my next trip back to the United States.
Ray is indeed from small town America. He began his teaching career in Round Rock, Texas, back when the population was about 2,500. Today he makes his home near Pensacola, Florida. And has lived in a succession of small towns.
Ray's premise is that CITIES in America have lost their third places and we're the worse off for it.
Fabulous book, interesting man.....
US Navy, retired
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
This book is a heartfelt and nostalgic lament at the loss of vibrant local communities and the disappearance and exclusion of the various shops and places that facilitate the spontaneous, daily neighborhood interactions that are essential for viable communities. As the author notes, American society has undergone tremendous changes since WWII: sprawling suburbanization, an automobile culture, and reliance on home entertainment, mainly television. The isolating tendency of these developments is reinforced by planners and zoning commissions that do not permit neighborhood hangouts like taverns, cafes, and the like to be located near developments of "dream" homes with their sculpted lawns.
He calls community enhancing places "third" places because they fall just behind the home and workplaces in terms of time spent, though in his estimation are no less important. They are a necessary complement to domestic and work lives. He discusses the general nature of "third" places, as well as specific examples, including European pubs, sidewalk cafes, and coffee houses. Several characteristics are generally found in "third" places. The places are inclusive; titles and status are checked at the door. They are usually unpretentious buildings without a lot of distractions that detract from conversation and camaraderie. The same-sex nature of most such places eliminates self-conscious formalities of dress and behavior. According to the author, one could hardly exaggerate the benefits that both individuals and communities derive from gathering in "third" places. The enhancements to a viable democracy are especially noted.
Virtually all "third" places have disappeared from the American scene; they have not been a part of new development since WWII. The German beer gardens and vibrant small town streets long ago vanished. Now taverns, coffee shops, and the like, often located in strip malls, are populated with strangers having arrived via automobile, not to mention the prevalence of loud music and other diversions that further inhibit conversation. A larger social tendency is to simply remain encapsulated at home surrounded by technical gadgetry like HDTVs, DVD players, computers, iPods, CD players, etc. This circumscribed, isolated world must bring smiles of joy to the automotive, oil, real estate, finance, and construction industries as well as the huge consumer goods suppliers. It's difficult to see how broader democratic views necessary for our society will be developed in these restricted, lonely environments with only the simplistic, if not misinforming, patter of the corporate media available.
The notion of close communities is hardly an unequivocal good. The author scarcely acknowledges that communities can be highly coercive, requiring strict adherence to prevailing community practice, and exclusionary to those who differ in some manner. It is doubtful that the open-minded, gregarious men of the author's communities are as ubiquitous as he implies. However, there is no doubt of the severe ramifications to both individuals and the larger society in the near total absence of active communities. Furthermore, the author's forays into the psychology of the sexes and the desirability of separation in relation to his third places seem flawed.
There will be no return to main streets in small towns and urban neighborhoods associated with manufacturing where the residents worked and associated with each other on and off the job. Today's reality is the complete divorce of place of residence from workplace locales, not to mention the 24/7 nature of work with extended hours. Workplaces can and do take on some of the characteristics of the author's "third" places, though his caution concerning power differentials in workplaces is not to be taken lightly. Likewise, voluntary associations, including churches, and the vast array of activities associated with raising children afford opportunities for socialization, though generally falling well short of the open ideal that the author postulates.
The residents of the communities of the past were not wiser than we are today. They did not plan their communities. The communities were a result of population size, and the co-location of homes and work. They had no political power to define their communities, but it was not particularly needed. But that lack of or eschewing of political power is entirely inadequate in this era of vast trans-national corporations dominating nearly every facet of our lives, including those aspects that define communities or the lack thereof. It is a fallacious claim that we do not have a "planned" economy, as though that happens only under socialism - the fact is, we do. The suburbanization of America, the vast highway network, the rise of the gasoline-powered automobile, and dominance of vast media empires supported by gadget manufacturers are due to the private planning of huge corporations. But these private acts have profound public and social consequences, yet citizen input is never requested or in some cases is suppressed by various means. Community enhancing measures will never again just happen. The exercise of political power will be required. But of course that assumes that a sizeable percentage of the citizenry understands what community requires, actually wants community, understands the obstacles, and is willing to back candidates in sufficient numbers and locations to effect change. In today's propagandistic and free-market capitalistic world that is a very high hurdle indeed. More likely, pseudo-communities will continue to be built, drawing upon the language but not the substance of community.
The book is thought-provoking. The author captures well that we are encapsulated in our private worlds with only marginal means to connect with others, unlike the easy sociability that once existed in some places. However, his emphasis on looking longingly at communities of the past will help little without accompanying suggestions about how to turn around our social structure. The author really does little of this. In a democracy, it is through political power that social change driven by citizens can occur. We can all see how change occurs that is dictated by huge private entities; that is the principal reason that "great good places" have essentially disappeared. It is even possible, though again most unlikely, that empowered citizens could create better and broader communities than those described by the author.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on December 27, 2005
I discovered this book after reading Willaim Raspberry (Washington Post Writers Group) commenting on his retirement. He found the newsroom served as the Great Good Place for him and rued that Americans don't have "informal gathering spots where one finds not just escape but camaraderie, conversation, friendly argument and pleasant conversation with regulars."
The civic solidarity and building of community that such a place fosters is sorely needed in America. I think that is one of the reasons for the dedication Rotarians give to their service organization. The weekly lunch meetings are structured, rather than informal, but otherwise fill the need for a Great Good Place.
I'd also suggest to those seeking a such a place, to check out their public library. Particularly in a small town, it can be the place where regulars run into each other and fall into discussion. Finding a spot where one can sit and chat without bothering students and readers depends on each library's layout.
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on July 6, 2003
Another reviewer here says, "No celebration of diversity here!" People of different backgrounds getting together on an equal footing and talking is essential to Oldenburg's idea of the G.G.P. It just couldn't be plainer. Another reviewer says that Starbucks is their G.G.P., and while Starbucks is okay for something mass-produced, it's not quite the local, inclusive hubbub of a place that Oldenburg is talking about.
Four stars because the arguments are (as a third reviewer says) anectdotal and not so tight. (But then, how do you document a phenomenon as elusive as "place where diverse people get together and exchange information and ideas," especially if the phenomenon has all but dried up?)
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on November 22, 2013
Jane Jacobs (1992) in The Death and Life of Great American Cities described the challenges to peoples' sense of community derived from urban planning and design when little attention is paid to creating spaces for routine, informal human interaction. Why is it that Starbucks and the coffee shop in general has become a meeting and gathering place? Why is the local pub such a fun place to be, a place where I look forward to seeing my 'friends' loosely defined as those who hang out there most Friday nights?
Oldenburg's The Great Good Place describes sociologically the role and importance of Third places - (places other than home or work) (p. xvii). Important qualities of third places:
1) They are inclusive and local
2) They create an environment in which everybody knows just about everybody
3) They serve as ports of entry for visitors
4) They offer a 'neutral ground' space for conversation, idea sharing, and the transmittal of social norms
5) Create places for fun and enjoyment
6) Create a sense of belonging and connectedness
This is a must read for anyone interested in belonging, community, and placemaking. I would also recommend this book for those interested in starting a restaurant or coffee shop, a gathering place, a community center, or church. Additional reading that might be helpful:
Block, P. (2008). Community: The structure of belonging. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
McKnight, J., & Block, P. The abundant community: Awakening the power of families and neighborhoods (1st ed.). San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
In this book, sociologist Ray Oldenburg writes about the importance of "third places"- places of small-scale public assembly that are not homes or workplaces such as British pubs and Austrian coffeehouses. He describes a few examples, seeks to explain why such places are useful, and shows why some such places are more successful than others.
Oldenburg explains that such places provide a means of recreation that allows people to socialize without having to schedule in advance or suffer the stresses of more intimate friendships. And according to Oldenburg, third places benefit marriages, because good third places ensure that a marriage is not forced to bear 100% of the spouses' need of companonship. .
But I wonder if Oldenburg overstates the importance of third places. For example, in describing 19th-century German-American beer gardens, he notes that German immigrants were quite successful at creating third places, while other ethnic groups such as Irish and Jews were much less so. But in the long run, these groups fit reasonably well into the American fabric. So what difference does it make that their bars weren't as fun?
And what distinguishes the most successful "third places" from any bar or coffeehouse or shopping mall? It is here that Oldenburg is least coherent, perhaps because he is trying to describe the indescribable. Oldenburg suggests that third places proliferate "wherever human beings have settled [except] where planning and zoning disallows them." But when describing specific examples, he shows how fragile they are: for example, he writes that the German beer garden lost ground to less hospitable pubs because Americans "never seemed able to allow the concept of a good tavern."
And when describing the beer gardens and the American Main Street, he focuses on their lack of exclusivity, noting that they were able to accommodate all ages, and were able to accommodate nonpaying loiterers as well as paying customers. But he also suggests that pubs have been ruined by incompatible newcomers; for example, New York's McSorley's "faces its greatest threat in the form of college students who make meals of its cheese platters and take over the place at night." I'm not sure I see how these observations are consistent.
Having said that, Oldenburg sometimes is on target in describing what makes a place an adequate "third place" and what causes it to fail. For example, North American taverns often fail because of the sheer level of artificial noise designed to drown out, rather than to facilitate, conversation. One Toronto tavern I recently visited forced me to choose between an indoors saturated with loud pop music and an outside area saturated with panhandlers- neither of which a particularly welcoming prospect. Perhaps such a place is designed to help the solo drinker get drunk as quickly as possible. But Oldenburg points out that over the past few decades, bars have lost ground to homes as places for alcohol consumption, indicating that the would-be drunks prefer homes to bars.
Oldenburg concludes by tying the decline of "third places" to suburban sprawl; where taverns and similar alternatives are not within walking distance, the possibility of an unscheduled break wanes. But are urban, walkable neighborhoods more conducive to third places today? Or has the decline of third places affected more walkable places as well? I'm not sure Oldenburg has the answer.