The decline of Main Street USA and the decline of community

This quote, which comes in a chapter describing the Main Street in a typical US small town in the 1930s (in this case, River Park, Minnesota), sums up the uniqueness of a third place and the benefits it has to community. It is more of the same from Ray Oldenburg and follows on from my last post about German Beer Gardens.

Main Street was a place of interaction not just business. You would certainly run into other that you knew and would pass the time with them. There were plenty of places to sit and chat, from the outside bench – provided by the business owners and places on the sidewalks right outside their doors, to the bars, cafe’s and soda fountains in the drug store. Main Street itself was the third place that made up the focus of the community.

The key, I have no doubt, to the sustained level of activity lay in the fact that the great majority of persons who visited the places along Main Street and did so with the desire for company in mind did so alone. It is this characteristic that modern communities fail to achieve and that is so much missed in modern life. Those who have found a place where you can stop in as lone individuals and find association and camaraderie awaiting them are indeed as rare as they are fortunate. Most of us have had to go with friends to a place in order to have someone to talk to when we get there. We must plan, we must make arrangements, we must try to establish a set time as well as a set place in order to regularise whatever certain association we can claim. In small towns like River Park, before home entertainment and fast highways took or kept people elsewhere, a lone individual could find company and diversion virtually without effort. [emphasis his]

Without such places, where to people go to meet others? I remember when I was about 24, about a year after starting work with a new computer start-up company, a fresh intake of graduates joined my department. Most had moved in from another town or city after completing their degree, and didn’t know anyone in the new area. A few months in, one of them asked me where I went to meet people. He did know anyone outside of work and didn’t know how to get to know anyone. This is a trend I see happening. Friendships are kept from school or university. New friendships can be made at work. Very occasionally you might get to know a couple of neighbours. But in general, people don’t know how to get to know others any more. Small Town, USA, was certainly home to a very static population, but it seems that Main Street gave plenty of opportunities to get to know others in the town.

There is also another insightful observation in the quote: we are not short of public meeting places today. There are plenty of coffee shops, bars, restaurants etc where people can hang out and chat. But most of this places run on a ‘bring your own friends’ basis. People come in groups, chat in groups and leave in groups (or come alone for some alone time), but very rarely do individuals or those who had arrived with different groups interact.

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