A Plea From Suburbia: Finding ‘Third Places’

TV in suburbs

Suspended in suburbia, when I wanted to hang out with my friends–outside of school– we faced many obstacles, especially going without a driver’s license or a middle place where my friends could meet up. And then forget about walking. Sidewalks are a joke for nonbikers when your nearest grocery store is five minutes by car but an hour by foot. In a place where we needed a car to get from place to place, our only options were to either see a movie, to walk around, or to shoot the shit in the mall’s empty parking lot. There was also the ice skating rink which was across the mall. When we got older and did have a car, our favorite place to visit was the Bass Pro Shops about thirty minutes away from one friend’s house. That was our fun. There’s only so many times you can go around the rink or the mall before you get bored of it.

After choosing where to go between our little options came the hardest part: getting a ride. In high school and without a car, there was no such thing as making last minute plans so most of the time we opted for each other’s houses. That quickly became boring since we got kicked out at dinner time. With these limitations, my friends and I felt the restrictions closing in on us.

Now, I think that living on the outside of the cities rather than inside the bowels of the city, gave birth to phrases like “there’s nothing to do in Broward,” between my friends and I. These jokes poked at the lack of variety we had experienced. In hindsight, what I had meant in high school was that unlike Miami and Fort Lauderdale, outside of school, there was no community within our suburban structure. With everything being a 20 minute car ride away our exploration was restricted to concrete plazas and cycling through different stores. This still rings true. One’s sense of self can be easily lost in a place like this. Who could blame us for wanting more than that?

There used to be manatees swimming in the now dirty canals. Complexes where cow fields used to be, and empty plazas that used to be full. Broward County isn’t the same place that I grew up in. It’s been changing rapidly since before I was born but there is still nothing to do.

Growing up in the small big city that I call Broward County, I didn’t think there was much freedom. Now that I recognize that there was plenty that’s being lost throughout South Florida. Despite being sandwiched between these bigger cities, making day trips to “Miami” or “Palm Beach” were mystifying because I couldn’t go myself. Or with friends. Places outside of my suburban bubble were mythology until I started to explore those spaces. Now, I’m starting to see the changes in them. But first I had to come to terms with the limited nature of the stores and chains of my city which eventually led to my resentment. That was what pushed me to start finding places like coffee shops. In that, I discovered that they served as a good place to study or to meet up with someone new, but there are few that aren’t Starbucks or Barnes & Noble. That’s when I discovered the term “third places” and began to explore its definition.

Created by Ray Oldenburg, the term ‘third place’ defines places that are not home (‘first place’) or work (‘second place’) where people are free to loiter and engage in unproductive conversations. The first place that might come to mind is a coffee shop, but I’m looking for a place that encourages openness instead of work-orientated conversations. No shame in that, these places are still engaging. But I have coined the term “second places in disguise” for them because it butts heads with my definition that says third places are not a place of productivity and have comfortable arrangements like the sometimes unbearable seating in chains. More fitting to my idea are cafes in France, where tables are placed closely together which inspires conversation. Where people are free to wonder out loud. To exchange ideas. The oldest recorded example would be the coffeehouses of 17th-century Europe where they meet to talk and are credited as a place where people went to find like-minded people.

Coffee shops are still great places but not the best third places. That’s why I have an issue with them being considered an ideal third place. Beyond the work-oriented atmosphere, cafes, whether independently-run or chains, people are expected to spend money to access the space. This is not accessible for everyone. A once-in-a-while luxury for most. The price of admission is high: not only do you have to drive there but then to exist at your own pace you have to make additional purchases, and then get back in your car to go home – which is more gas money. There’s no space to linger, and I for one am tired from driving.

These ideal third places that I have in mind do exist. They’re real and part of many people’s lives, from beaches to independent bookstores and open plazas. But my main complaint is that these places cannot be a regular part of my life because I am landlocked in the suburbs. All the open mics, weekday jeopardy nights, and book club meetings are not within my reach. There’s no actual third place. Everytime that I do want to go out I’m forced to fill up another tank to drive outwards to find the places because these places are far. I wish that we had more events like in Miami or Fort Lauderdale for the people who want to connect with their community. Through instagram I found my middle ground: South Florida’s alternative music scene.

I started to explore this scene with backyard shows and large venues for bigger bands that I like with my friends. Months in advance we would buy the tickets and make our plans. Peach Pit at Revolution Live. Big Thief at the Miami Beach Bandshell. I love the atmospheres of these venues, but it was always the smaller shows that I liked more since I could talk to new people and foster this sense of exploration for me while going to places I’ve never been to before. I really found my love for this scene when I went to a show at Underground Coffeehaus in Fort Lauderdale, with their mint chocolate chip ice cream and multi-colored lasers. Sometime later, I went to a last-minute show in someone’s backyard on a cold February night, where there were two guys in the back selling pepperoni pizzas with honey drizzled on top. And recently I have started to appreciate Gramps in Wynwood, for the space they give to alternative bands. Spaces like there where an opening band could the audience for a cartwheel in exchange for a 15% discount for their merch come to mind when I think of the scene.

Chance encounters and the possibility of what could  happen makes going out to a show exciting. In this scene, I can listen to music and talk to people I would have never met otherwise. It’s a place where spontaneous conversations begin that eventually lead you to a new project or writing this article now. Now, these places are my perfect examples of “third places”.

Recently, I learned that celebrated places within the alternative scenes are being shut down in favor of new developments. The historic Churchill’s Pub in Miami has led to an outcry from locals when it shut down during the pandemic. Can’t they see how special places like this are?  It’s a place to hear music, express yourself, and meet people outside of your standard social circle. This space is different to me because it’s a place for people to come together, especially for creatives. That’s why these places are important. This is my love letter to third places. In Ray Oldenburg’s words, third spaces are “anchors of a community.”

But still, that isn’t enough when venues are shutting down and are being replaced with luxury apartment complexes. This scene is essential because it’s a space for people to talk, to express, to show themselves without pressure. To lose them would be losing the heart of this community. There should be more backyard shows, more conversation. Keep going to these spaces. Let it be known how special a surprising place can be. Show how much these places really mean.

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