From the Editor: Looking for a village square

August 10, 2012

Paula MinaertBY PAULA MINAERT — When I first moved to Hyattsville more than 30 years ago, the local Dunkin’ Donuts (now Shagga Restaurant) was a neighborhood hangout. Whenever I went, the same group of older men would be there. They liked the counter and perched on tall stools with ripped vinyl seats, talking and smoking. (You could smoke everywhere back then.)

These men knew each other and knew the server. After a while I got to know some of them as well. When the owner remodeled and got rid of the stools ─ and banned cigarettes ─ the regulars stopped going and the place changed dramatically.

That Dunkin’ Donuts was an example of what a recent Washington Post article called “third places”: places where you can go to be with other people, to see and be seen, that are neither home nor work. The Professional Carryout, which closed July 28 after nearly 20 years in business, was another one. A lot of people who used to go there regularly have lost their third place and are not happy about it. The workers at St. Jerome Child Center sent a big poster with good-byes and expressions of thanks to the owners.

It could be that some of the newer restaurants along Route 1 will become third places. Franklins already has for some people, I know. Busboys & Poets certainly has the ambience for it and they have many varied events that draw people in. And other locals have probably found other places.

But there is a downside to some of the newer places: They’re often very noisy.  Someone I know is married to a contractor and she says this is done on purpose; restaurants and similar places are built to be noisy in order to create a trendy, exciting feeling and thus attract customers.

But for us baby boomers – whose numbers here are growing, according to the last census – it sometimes has the opposite effect. I have a hard time carrying on a conversation in many of these gathering spots. And no, I’m not the only person to complain of this.

Conversation isn’t the only element of third places, but for me it’s a crucial one. How can you hang out with other people without talking?

There’s something else I’d like to see in whatever third places develop near us, but it’s hard to describe. I’m also not even sure that the places I’ve mentioned above, Dunkin’ Donuts and the Professional Carry Out, had it.

But I would like to find in third places a variety of people, people who are like me and people who are unlike me; people I don’t normally spend time with. It’s like the village square in times past, where everyone gathered, from the miller and the teacher to the clergyman and the alewife.

In his book The World We Have Lost, Peter Laslett says this doesn’t happen in our communities anymore. And sociologist Robert Bellah points out that we cluster in what he calls “lifestyle enclaves,” rarely encountering anyone very different from ourselves.

Who knows? Maybe we’ll find this here in Hyattsville.