Coronavirus and Our “Second Places”

First, if you aren’t familiar with the concept of first, second, and third places (home, work/school, the social gathering spaces), watch this video wherein sociologist Ray Oldenberg explains the concept to you. This is an 18 minute lecture. There are no visual elements. You can just listen and you won’t have to listen to all of it to get the general gist.

Now, Oldenburg here is arguing for and focusing in on the third place–the shared social space–and he pooh poohs the idea of the virtual community as a viable third place. I think that his 2013 assessment does not hold up as well in July 2020, but I’m gonna put a pin in that for now because I want to think about the space that he doesn’t talk about: the second one. Work-place. School-place. The places where the majority of us spend our waking/working hours.

We can’t use these second places right now, not in the way we want to; individuals and institutions are grappling with our expectation that these second places are just always available to us and are baseline containers for what we do in those working/learning hours.

The second place is now deadly. It is a disease transmission vector at a scale at which it hasn’t been ever in our modern world. The ability to earn/learn while hunkering down in the first place (home) is increasingly a marker of economic privilege.

The second place is also, I suspect, expensive. It is the physical home of the work/learn function in our society. Think about where you work or go to school–the place. What is the value of the physical property–the buildings, the underlying structural elements, the greenspaces, the actual land itself? What is cost/value of the labor associated with building, maintaining, securing, and facilitating the use of these places? How much skin in the game does an institution have in these physical spaces, and how does that factor into their calculations about when, if, and how these places became/become physically active again?

The second place is also a container for human bodies. It is the structure in which we do our “work”–be that the work we do to earn money to pay for our first place and our third place activities or the work that we do to eventually be able to do the work that pays. The school provides the place to contain the small bodies that are attached to the larger bodies that must go to work.

If the school is dangerous and not accessible–and third places are not as appealing when we are really safest (in a virus-avoidance sense) in our first places–where do we safely contain and monitor the small bodies? How does that impact the workplace-as-container? What percentage of the square footage associated with second places–and all of the attendant support features of those places noted above–will not be needed in the short term? How might we shift in the long term? And, again–how do these human economics factor into decision making on the part of the owners of the second places, particularly pre-, primary, secondary, and alternative schooling environments that are under pressure to contain those small bodies? At what rate of infection and/or death of teachers/staff/students do we as a society go back to the second place drawing board?

I have to work to make money to pay for my first place, so I’ll be heading to my second place and my son will be heading to his to the extent that we are required to. And I recognize that I haven’t even touched on the second spaces that are deemed essential to the maintenance of the first spaces. The paradigm is shifting.

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