Once upon a time, women got together in neighborhood coffee klatches or PTAs, and men stopped for a cold one on the way home or at league bowling on Tuesday nights.
They did the oddest thing: They talked.
Today, instead of face-to-face encounters that help what Oregon poet Ingrid Wendt calls "keeping the human spirit in repair," we communicate by computer, by talk radio or by finger on the freeway.
When we wonder at the so-called "red" and "blue" divisions of politics, we need look no further, some social observers say, than at the loss of what's been called "third places" — safe, neutral gatherings spots.
The corner store, the local pub, the coffee shop that doesn't involve a long car ride. "Third places" cultivate deeper support and a broader range of ideas than you find at your first place (home) or second place (work).
"They bring you into contact with people who are different," says Seattle University professor Mara Adelman. "And if we don't expose ourselves to divergent points of view, we become very closed minded."
What are "third places"?
Third places can be anywhere and almost anything. But they aren't family, talk radio, chat rooms or TV — although if you're watching a Cheers rerun, you're watching a third place.
Ray Oldenburg, author of "The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons and Other Hangouts at the Heart of the Community" (Marlowe & Co., 1999), says third places should be:
• Cheap or free.
• Close to home or work so you go there regularly.
• Amenable to conversation.
• A second home for old and new friends, even if it's just the bartender.
When Oldenburg lived in France, there was a bistro on every block that provided social "sorting places."
Some urban neighborhoods are working to reverse the trend, but for the most part such places in the United States have been knocked down by post-World War II zoning laws.
"It's against the law to create community," Oldenburg said by phone from his hurricane-rattled home in West Florida.
Meanwhile, we're not mixing it up with neighbors at home, either. Robert D. Putnam writes in "Bowling Alone" that the frequency of people meeting for a social evening with neighbors dropped by a third from 1974 to 1998, and likely by half since World War II.
Without these conversations, it's hard to have a true democracy, says Ron Sher, who has been lauded by customers and by Oldenburg for creating common space in his developments — Crossroads in Bellevue, Third Place Books and Commons at Lake Forest Park, and Third Place Books in Ravenna. All three invite people to linger for chess, music and book discussions.
The concept is called "place making" and Sher is on the national board of the Project for Public Spaces, which will bring a group together in Seattle next year to plan a larger, public conference here for 2006 or 2007.
Environmentalists are among those interested, Sher says, because they believe one of the best ways to prevent sprawl is to make cities friendlier places to live.
And why is it important for democracy?
Just look at the polarization of Republicans and Democrats on a whole range of social issues, says Adelman, an associate professor in Seattle University's Department of Communication.
She's studied the benefits of "weak ties" — the people you meet regularly at the dog park, the coffee shop, the bus stop.
The "strong ties" in our lives — family, friends, workmates — tend to be "birds of a feather," Adelman says. They have certain expectations of how we'll think or behave. The "weak ties" provide freedom of self-expression to test out new ideas — "and then you get to say good night and go home."
Without third places, she says, "you can't get into the gray areas and complexity."
She wants us to celebrate the "unsung heroes" in our world, the bartenders, the hairdressers and mail carriers who know our names and are the eyes and ears of the neighborhood.
Clearly, it's no less than your patriotic duty to stop by the "local" for a beer.
Sherry Stripling: firstname.lastname@example.org