02 October 2008

Third places and first places

Last Friday, we woke up in Elektrostal, Russia, and went to bed in Newberg, Oregon, USA. On Saturday morning, we went to Chapters Books. I always enjoy getting coffee from there (and also from Newberg's Coffee Cottage, just to be fair and balanced)--and I also love their selection of books on display, apparently deliberately calibrated to separate left-wing evangelicals from their cash.

I looked around and saw lots of alert and amiable people, including a pod of young people listening to stories being read out loud in the children's corner. It appeared for all the world to be a sort of living room for Newberg's booklovers. In terms of urban sociology, the store was fulfilling the promise of "third places," locations beyond home and work where it is safe to gather in public and be sociable, or to be sociably alone away from home. Even those with headphones and laptops looked up once in a while and were glad to see their acquaintances walk into the place.

The popularity of such places has led some missional theorists and entrepreneurs to experiment with coffeehouses as venues for evangelism and alternative churches. (This isn't exactly new; I remember visiting the Potter's House back in the 1980's and it wasn't new then.) My own meeting, Reedwood Friends, has considered the idea. One such church (at least) in Portland even meets in a bar. Although I have a few nagging worries about mixing church and consumerism, and about the class biases that might need to be considered, I generally love the idea of stripping the crust of establishment prestige and respectability from the church, and replacing all that with street-level accessibility.

A few years ago, a Friends leader from Northwest Yearly Meeting visited Elektrostal. Toward the end of his visit, he said, "What this town needs is a coffeehouse." I thought about it for a moment--there was in fact at least one coffeehouse I knew about in our part of Elektrostal, And since then, several more have been established, including my favorites, the Kofeinya stores on Nikolaev and in the Meridian shopping center.

The Coffee Bean in Moscow is congenial but expensive--
and, of course, it is in Moscow. (Photo: Judy Maurer)
But these coffee shops are not the same sort of place as Chapters Books or Starbucks would like to be. The Elektrostal versions are deliberately shiny and upscale. The loud television discourages conversation or reading, and the formal seating discourages lounging. The prices are higher than in the USA (in absolute as well as relative terms; Judy and I can't afford to go much), for much smaller quantities. (Is slow sipping an American peculiarity?) The worst experience, in Moscow, was the 30 ml of expresso, less than one healthy swallow, we got at Akademiya for nearly $4. Of course, surroundings like these probably are not what the "third space" people have in mind. (Don't ask why we were there; it's a long story.)

Strangely enough, in Elektrostal it is the McDonalds restaurant which might come closest to providing a third-place sort of experience. Coffee is relatively cheap and good, and nobody could accuse the decor of being discouragingly upscale. Some people go there, knowing full well that the food is not ideal but enjoying the courteous service and a chance to meet people without putting out too much cash. However, nobody would confuse it with a coffeehouse, either. Going there is not exactly a relaxing experience.

It seems to me that the main reason that "third place" coffeehouses or similar places have not appeared in Elektrostal is that people have not yet given up on the "first place"--home. The people we know are far more inclined to gather in kitchens--their own or their friends'--than in some commercial venue. To risk a generalization, most Russians I know don't feel the same itch as Americans feel to flee the home for some external location to mix randomly with people they may or may not know, especially when it costs a fair amount of money to go there. Many Americans feel almost as at home in a coffeehouse as in their own home, and adopt the same lounging postures there. Russians, on the other hand, tend to preserve at least some dignity in a commercial space. (Maybe not in bars, though; I wouldn't know!)

Having said all this, however, I know a number of Russian young people who might welcome "third places." A subset of those people, perhaps, can be found in computer and Internet clubs. In good weather, the parks are natural gathering places. So are high-rise courtyards, parking lots, and stairwells. I've been in a lot of waiting rooms at professional offices, and once I saw a legal services waiting room spontaneously become a social gathering as people began exchanging lawyer stories. In any case, although Russians find different ways to get the benefits we receive from social spaces such as coffeehouses, I'd love to test the vision of an Elektrostal coffeehouse that is more relaxed and less expensive than the existing models--and, to go one step further, the vision of a coffeehouse ministry. In the meantime, there's always our kitchen.

Righteous links: Barclay College experiences revival. ~~ An excerpt on peacemaking from Finding Jesus Outside the Box. ~~ Why Friends Committee on National Legislation participated in a meeting with Iran's President Ahmadinejad. ~~ Steve Fraser on Wall Street's return as "the place Americans love to hate." ~~ A significant Olmert interview: Israel must leave much of the "territories." ~~ David Westin, president of ABC News, tells his church to "vote out poverty." ~~ Roy Anker harvests the Cannes Film Festival.

Lightnin' Hopkins drops it down to the natural blues. (From the wonderful DVD, American Folk-Blues Festival: The British Tours 1963-1966, from which the video of Howlin' Wolf I posted a couple of weeks ago also came.)


Bill Samuel said...

I haven't heard the term "third place" talked about at my church, but it rang a bell with me in terms of the church's new-found vision for its property.

My church is on a 63-acre farm which it is owned for a decade. When it was looking, this was not the kind of thing it was seeking, but it turned out to be what God had in mind.

A decade later, after spending a year trying to understand what God's vision for the property was, we came to the conclusion that God gave us a farm because he wanted us to farm! A little bit like a "Duh" moment.

The plan is to raise fruits and vegetables, primarily to give to those who struggle to find the money to buy fresh produce. We will raise them organically in a sustainable manner, which we hope will be an example to others.

Another part of a vision is to be a place for community in an area where there really isn't one. A part of this is to partner with others in the community on the work - several churches and a mosque have indicated a desire to do that. We also plan a farmer's market, where we would invite area small producers to sell their produce. We hope it will be a place where neighbors can make connections.

Johan Maurer said...

I love every bit of this vision, even though (perhaps even BECAUSE) nothing is guaranteed. It's a worthy risk.