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.
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.
T E Whalen
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.
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.
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