by Wade Rathke
New Orleans Third spaces received a fair amount of attention not so long ago. These were the places between work and play where community could be built. How will they survive the pandemic?
Libraries are a good example. In recent years their mission has adapted and evolved. No longer simply a place for books on shelves, they are now hubs for internet and computer access for those lacking such facilities. E-books can be checked out along with CDs, videos, and any manner of other things. They were places where people could hang out, read a paper, flip through a book, do homework, or whatever. In most cases, they have not reopened and seem still navigating the new world.
Coffeehouses are another. Certainly, their popularity has soared in recent decades, but as community alternative spaces for business, pleasure, social interactions, and cultural development they have been mainstays for hundreds of years. Coffeehouses are hubs for students, teleworkers, artists, musicians, and generally something closer to community centers and fundamental meeting places. At Fair Grinds Coffeehouse where we host visiting musicians, busking and building an audience, we have no idea when will be open in the evenings again. The dozen twelve-step groups that met in our common space have largely adapted to Zoom meetings, but they want the fellow-feeling again that meetings bring. A coffeehouse that is just takeout, where people run in and out, is important, but there’s a difference between a fueling station and community hub. We had a group that had met every morning for more than a dozen years to read the papers, discuss events, drink coffee, and be together. What happens to them? Can they comeback? Can we? We wonder. We’re not sure.
Bars and some neighborhood cafes are also third spaces for many people and part of how they build communities. There are hundreds of towns all over America where a local café is a meeting place early in the morning for a wide range of workers, business-people, and others eating breakfast or having a cup of coffee, but more critically building social capital, keeping up with the community. What coffee doesn’t fuel, sometimes libations provide. Watering holes like many in our neighborhoods succeed in becoming community spaces as well. Rules that only allow tables, and few of them, and no one sitting at the bar, make this hard, as do capacity limits of 25 or 50%.
Many of these small businesses that provide the layered infrastructure of neighborhoods and create unique communities are not going to be able to make it through this pandemic, as it continues to spool out longer and longer. Will anything replace them, if the new normal insists on permanent social spacing? Hard to imagine.