I’ve been reading Ray Oldenburg’s book about third places – those places that are neither home nor work but which allow individuals in a community to come alongside each other, relax and let off steam. He contends that these are the sort of places that enable a town, village, or neighbourhood to become a community.
In chapter 5 he laments about the lost German beer garden or beer saloon. Unlike the Irish pub or American tavern, these were family places with a small bar counter – socialising was to be done at tables – which served weak german beer on which it was hard to get drunk. They were about socialising, letting you hair down, chatting, spending time away from work or home. Men would often chat and women crochet
Many beer gardens were successfully set up in the US by German immigrants in New York, Chicago, and Milwaukee among others, but these have sadly lost out to the format of the Irish pub – stronger beer, men only, and an environment where you came to drink, rather than meet.
He looks at what has replaced it and partly blames, among other things, the [American Protestant] church. Over draconian Sunday trading laws which miss the spirit of Sabbath mean that church and home were the only things to do on a Sunday. Restaurants weren’t open, buses didn’t run and there was nowhere to go and meet others. Rest from work meant idleness at home. By contrast, the Germans would spend their time as a family in the beer garden, eating reasonably priced food there, relaxing with their families and other neighbours, resting and walking in the park and attending concerts. (Most of them would go to church too). Together, this was food for the soul. The Germans would not be just physically rested after their weekend, but their spirits would have been lifted. The loss of these third places was a loss to the individual and the community.
Oldenburg then describes two American attempts to recreate such a thing. Of course, these recreations turned out to be overpriced kitsch versions of the real thing – A small town (German founded) sausage festival which turns into a town junk market with cheap sausage, poor beer, queues everywhere and a proliferation of stalls selling ‘amateurish pottery… glistening with heavy layers of epoxy’. This reminds me of the German Markets we get in the UK – places where you can buy some nice continental foods but which do nothing to engender community
The other was an annual picnic held in a park of a small city. It was well attended and included games, food and drink. However it was marred by broken bones in a softball game, individuals who drank too much, wives upset that their husbands were paying other women too much attention, and husbands upset by the opposite, lost personal possessions and equipment and of course, food and drink ran up quite a bill for those who bought it.
“One might surmise that those folks weren’t civilised, or contrarily, that they had a pretty good time. It may appear that they were overdue for such an outing and, understandably, went overboard when the chance for celebration finally came…. by contrast, the controlled and inexpensive revelry of the lager beer gardens – all those good times at little expense and no disruption – meant that they could be indulged frequently. And they were.”
There are some similarities to the events that have held on our development. I didn’t see too many people getting drunk at these events (there were a few at the first fireworks event in the evening, but not many at the afternoon picnics), which is good. Other positives include the fact that people were meeting and chatting with neighbours that they hadn’t met. But the reason we couldn’t do this every week is because it is all too big and too expensive. I couldn’t afford to eat and drink at those prices every week (albeit, by today’s standards, they were fairly reasonable), but the sheer amount of effort in setting up and taking down could not be reproduced every week. These events are by nature occasional.
Where is the ‘controlled and inexpensive revelry’ in our society. It doesn’t exist. This is what the author is lamenting for his own society.