At Emerson, the third place should be a charm

by Hayden Wright / Beacon Staff • October 4, 2012

Thirdplaceopinion ally
Emerson could use more places for students to gather and exchange ideas.
Emerson could use more places for students to gather and exchange ideas.

When I lived on campus, the corner of Boylston and Tremont streets felt like home. For all intents and purposes, it was not my real home, where my family lived, but nonetheless a place to lay my head, to eat and rest, and where I established a sense of family with the people around me. 

Now that I’ve lived off-campus for over a year, crossing that windy intersection, zipping from class to class, and attending Beacon meetings feels more like a job. Some days of the week I wear my “student” and “editor” hats, others my barista ball cap at the cafe where I steam milk in the South End. Home has shifted to my matchbox studio in Beacon Hill. 

The problem with that dichotomy is the absence of easily accessible spaces that are neither home nor job-related. Urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg established the theory in his 1989 book The Great Good Place that apart from those “first” and “second” places, thriving communities depend on “third places” that exist outside the regressed comforts of home and the anxiety of the professional rat race. 

At Emerson College, these essential spaces are few and far between. 

Oldenburg suggests that third places are welcoming locations that are free or easily afforded and inspire a community of regulars who shouldn’t travel great distances to get there. The archetypal third place is a cafe, but not in the style of Starbucks or Emerson’s Cafe, whose rigid furniture, long lines, and rapid service encourage in-and-out expediency. Forbes contributor Alice Watson lamented in a May column that Starbucks’ stiff rebrand of its interior diminishes its position as a third place altogether. 

“The effect of the store renovation is clear,” she wrote. “It’s not a comfortable place to sit for very long.”

On campus, students have the Max Mutchnick Center, the multicultural student lounge, and smaller sitting areas like the writing, literature, and publishing space on the tenth floor of the Ansin Building. However, those spots usually look like small-scale versions of the library, with students focused intently on computer screens, earbuds firmly intact. They’re sometimes dingy, often dated, and not places where I’ve frequently felt excited or even welcome to hang out.  

Self-imposed quiet study does not facilitate the exchange of ideas; it isolates students further. From long solo hauls on different MBTA lines to energetic group project meetings, many of us spend our time cocooned inside our own heads or hypersocially chasing professional ambitions. When we’re not angling to feel like the most capable people in the room, we hope no one will disturb our Netflix breaks in the library — oscillating between highwire pragmatists and checked-out zombies. 

It’s not unfair to say that our Boston campus, as it exists physically, is not a very warm place to spend time. Many students with the liberal arts bug chose Emerson over colleges brimming with antique character and space to unwind — schools with quadrangles; student unions; and oaky, distinguished libraries. Students here forwent those amenities in favor of something very different. But it’s easy to underestimate their value when Emerson promises to help propel us to success in our chosen fields. 

The fact remains that third places are necessary. It’s said that the French Revolution began in a coffee shop near the Palais Royal: That’s the power of people gathering in third places to talk. I would wager that those revolutionaries didn’t arrive at revolt by complaining about their research writing homework or feverishly assembling marketing campaigns. 

As a barista, I see customers of all ages, incomes, appearances, and dispositions leave their lives at the door. For the hour patrons spend sipping cappuccino out of porcelain, they are not their jobs or their children or their bills — they’re just people enjoying the pleasure of being around other people. As an Emerson student, I’m hard-pressed to say where that happens on our campus. 

This void cannot be overlooked as the college moves forward with its development plan this year. When leases expire on Emerson properties rented to seedy nightclubs that bring Jersey Shore wannabes to our doorsteps, we must finally prioritize the creation of gathering places for students. 

If this college will become the global leader in the study of communication, as President M. Lee Pelton imagines, the student body needs adequate space to communicate beyond our various professional roles. The third place is a charm.