Searching London for My ‘Third Place’

Years after agoraphobia kept her housebound, Jessica Brown walks the streets of her adopted city seeking deeper connection.

Jessica Brown | Longreads | July 2017 | 10 minutes (2,605 words)

 

After a quick stop at a Jamaican food stall at the outdoor Borough Market, I parted with my lunchtime companion and began my solitary journey through the heart of London, with City Hall on my right, the Thames to my left and the low winter sun above me. Though most of my walks through the city tended to be directionless — at least mentally, if not also geographically — today I had a purpose: I was looking for my “third place.”

Home and work, I had read that morning, are our first and second places, respectively, and the third place is a sociable one we choose for ourselves as somewhere that helps root us in our communities, and promotes social equality. Or at least that’s the ideal, according to sociologist Ray Oldenburg, who coined the phrase in 1989 in his book, The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community. “Nothing contributes as much to one’s sense of belonging as much as ‘membership’ in a third place,” he wrote.

My first place is a flatshare in North London — an area characterized alternately as middle class; an area overrun with affluent, well-groomed “yummy mummies”; and as the intellectual hub of London. It’s the family-friendly part of the city, but it’s also rapidly falling victim to the kind of hipster gentrification that has already affected its trendier cousin, East London. It also has some of the city’s poorest and most crime-ridden areas, such as Tottenham, where unarmed 29-year-old Mark Duggan was shot and killed by police in 2011, sparking the infamous London riots.

My second place, an office in Kensington, the richest borough of London — provides me with a vastly different version of the city than my first place.

I needed to find my third place, the place that could connect the authentic me, the persona I am at home, with my surroundings — with my wider home. Since moving to London from the north of England five years before, something had been missing for me — some deeper connection with the city. I hoped finding my third place would give personal meaning to the random masses of concrete and strangers I happened to live among.

The sharp air burned my cheeks as I walked. I wiped my nose on my sleeve, happy that winter had fully embedded itself. Every year, the season’s sharp characteristics stung the city just long enough for me to keep a feeble grasp on the earth’s steady passage of time. It served as a reminder of nature’s pace. Knowing winter would abate soon enough provided the concrete city’s inhabitants a relationship — if somewhat distant — with the natural world.

I climbed up to Tower Bridge to go the long way home and took in the view from over the tops of tourists’ heads as they took photos of themselves kissing. Everything looked just as the air felt: crisp, and sharp. I had now reached The-City-within-the-city otherwise known as Square Mile, as it began its lunch break.

I needed to find my third place, the place that could connect the authentic me, the persona I am at home, with my surroundings — with my wider home.

The Square Mile makes up much of London’s metropolitan skyline. But beneath the towering metal stories is an area with a rich history. This was the birthplace of the sprawling capital city we know today. It was was founded by Romans in 50 AD. The area inside it, which is about the size of a square mile, is filled with traditional pubs and alleyways, juxtaposed by a backdrop of bankers in suits flooding into skyscrapers. This little piece of London isn’t counted as one of its 32 boroughs. It even has its own flag and crest.

Workers hurried past me, clutching supermarket sandwiches and precariously positioned takeaway coffee cups in the same hand. The waft of coffee and food mixed with the unmistakable smell of the cold river’s edge was almost intoxicating. It was the middle of the week, and my day off work; I was enjoying leisurely walking past those confined to the working day, and the amplified sense of freedom it gave me.

The city’s armor, its shiny office surfaces, deflected my attention back to the streets whenever my eyes wandered. As the wind propelled me around its corners, I thought: For one of the world’s most prominent financial districts, this is a deceptively small area.

But like every London borough, the city has its own personality: gateway to the future and keeper of the past. Clues to the city’s history were aplenty, but well hidden among its garish capitalist upstarts. I thought back to the “Tales of the Plague” guided tour I went on a few years prior, which delved into the city’s dark past. The guide, who stopped and explained every landmark with the enthusiasm of a recent drama school graduate, had left me with a lingering impression of the city as a harborer of plague-infested rats, germs, and feces-filled streets. It probably didn’t help that he retold history while brandishing a fake rat on the end of a stick.

Ye olde fashion pubs on every street were another reminder of the city’s well-preserved history. The Old Bell, Dirty Dicks, Old Doctor Butler’s Head, and Ye Olde Cock Tavern are just some of the pubs that exist to transport inhabitants back to simpler times and remind us that the corporate glaze is only a veneer over the city’s real character.

“The Square Mile” is home to many of London’s oldest pubs, because London’s original ones burned to the ground during the Great Fire of 1666, when pub-going was far more popular. Last year, the south east of England had the highest rate of pub closures across the UK. Now, ten are closing every week, according to the Campaign for Real Ale.

I wondered if the Britons’ third place could be pubs. According to Oldenburg, it must be a neutral space. He writes, “The neutral ground (space upon which one is not burdened by the role of host or guest) of third places offers the great ease of association so important to community life. People may come and go just when they please and are beholden to no one.”

It’s also, he writes, where you’ll find “public characters” known by locals. “In the third place, entertainment is provided by the people themselves. The sustaining activity is conversation which is variously passionate and light-hearted, serious and witty, informative and silly. And in the course of it, acquaintances become personalities and personalities become true characters — unique in the whole world and each adding richness to our lives.”

The pub seems to be a perfect fit; at least, it does when you’re looking through the lens of nostalgia, as one can easily do when under the alien skyscrapers and mystical spell of the city.

But recently there’s been a decline in the number of pubs, and the ones that remain are struggling to survive. Partly to blame is a shift from the traditional community pub of locals to strangers’ cocktail bars and pop-ups — a new kind of plague on the city. London has lost a quarter of its pubs in the last 16 years. A survey commissioned by the mayor of London found this was due to soaring commercial property tax rates and relaxed laws around planning permission. According to, Appear Here, a pop-up firm that positions itself as “Airbnb for retail,” some 3,000 pop-up spaces sprouted up across the city last year.

With gentrification changing the complexions of various neighborhoods, people living in Britain’s capital are very much in need of a third place. London’s anonymity is unabashed. Its loneliness doesn’t hide. It’s a shrugged-off symptom of this grand, unforgiving apex of money and culture. It lines every street, fills every station. Its adoptive residents are more likely to be drawn to its center, while born-and-bred Londoners fill its sprawling outskirts, where the city’s ills have dissipated.

Those who flock to London typically do so alone or in small groups of people with whom they have precarious ties, swapping family and familiarity for long hours in the office and lack of community. Adults in the capital are forced to share their homes with strangers far beyond their student years, meaning that their first place can sometimes be so alienating it leaves them with a craving for, rather than a feeling of, home.

As I continued to walk, my view started to spread out to the very corners of my eyes, and the glass skyscrapers melted into brick coffee shops. Simultaneously, I reached Whitechapel — a district in the East End unfortunately known internationally for its worst export, Jack the Ripper — and the realization that I felt a yearning for a third place like a child who didn’t want a toy until she realized it had been taken away.


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I crossed a road that had once marked the beginning of my walk home, near an office I’d spent a bitter winter in a few years ago. I ducked past the building, but couldn’t help having a quick look through the window of the restaurant where my then co-workers had taken me for an awkward lunch on my first day. Would the chips taste as good as I remembered, I wondered, or had the pleasure of eating been amplified because it served as a distraction from the awkwardness of sitting with a group of people whose casual use of long words and highbrow references made me uncomfortable. There’s nothing like sitting with the wrong company to make the city feel inhospitable.

With gentrification changing the complexions of various neighborhoods, people living in Britain’s capital are very much in need of a third place.

I turned down the same street I’d escaped into every evening leaving that job, when I’d used streets to shake off my frustration and stress before reaching home. I realized that the more times I’d walked down a particular street — my way of airing my worries and solving problems — the better I felt. The more problems a street had helped me solve, the stronger its reminder of the transience of everyday troubles.

When walking the streets of London, there was always something to draw me back to reality after I had indulged in rumination for too long: walking past groups of people and hearing glimpses of their conversations, seeing a light go up in a window twenty stories high, or noticing a funny sign I hadn’t seen before in a well-trodden part of town.

I passed lunch-break drinkers laughing and leaning out of Whitechapel’s pubs, and shrugged my shoulder up to my ear. That definitely wasn’t my third place. I turned down the side road to Shoreditch High Street, passing the first splashes of graffiti idiosyncratic with the hipster capital, the colorful markings somehow adding to the area’s sense of community — bonding people through the creative manifestations of collective anger and discontent. But that wasn’t my third place, either.

I reached the centre of Shoreditch — the trendy east London hipster hotspot — and the crossroads lined with pop-up shops: a brazen statement of the city’s attention span and the resulting impermanence of its landmarks. Shoreditch was home to a couple of American diners, but, surely, proper third places couldn’t be exported, I thought.

The road to my right led to the first flat I’d ever called home in London. I moved there after college from the north of England, full of hope and false ideas of the city. But I developed agoraphobia on the very first day I lived there — without warning, without any real reason other than a prior history of anxiety. For the six months I lived there, I barely left the front door. This meant I could only work from home, so my first place also acted as my second and third. While everyone else rushed to work, I looked down from my fourth-floor window, feeling like an outsider cut off from civilization, and totally disconnected from the city I’d longed to live in since my parents brought me to visit Buckingham Palace as a child.

During that time, I could venture no further than the square of grass sitting at the bottom of the apartment building. I felt so other; I inhabited a different world where all that existed were the four walls around me and the window reminding me that life went on regardless. It took a lot of perseverance, a move to a new flat, and a job very close by to gradually recover. I wonder now if my current penchant for walking around the city was borne out of a defiance that came from never wanting to feel disconnected from London again.

I set off up Kingsland High Street, one of the oldest roads in Britain, and home to a long string of Vietnamese restaurants. Past the bus stop I’d stood at a year ago, with my friend who was waiting to go home. She had been carrying three bunches of flowers from Columbia Road flower market, eager to bring some life to her new flat overlooking the East End docks. Now, possibly even as I walked, she might be giving another new building, overlooking the Australian coast, the feel of home. I wondered, if she’d found her third place, would she have stayed?

I enjoyed these flashes of familiarity — rarely experienced in the capital, where the streets serve as solitary vessels to get from one place to another, rather than where memories are made. Past my favorite museum, the Geffrye, displaying furniture and other objects dating back to the 17th century. A preservation of first places through history, but it wasn’t quite enough to be my third.

People who share a third place “do for one another as they would for blood relatives and old friends,” Oldenburg writes. The place serves as an “intellectual fora” but not necessarily in a traditionally intellectual way. People can use it to reflect upon life and society’s problems, but they and their problems don’t need to be alike.

I realized that the more times I’d walked down a particular street — my way of airing my worries and solving problems — the better I felt.

I peered in the windows of the Prets and Costa Coffees as I neared the end of my walk home, smiling to myself as nothing but laptops and foreheads stared back at me. Even with my high threshold for loneliness, the mutual isolation wasn’t enough to feed me in the way a third place should. And beyond my own face staring back at me from the window, there didn’t look to be much reflecting going on.

By the time I’d turned the corner, away from the cacophony of Kingsland Road and into the conversation between a group of friends arguing where to go for food, I was coming to understand why we spray-painted its walls, argued on its streets and kissed on its bridges. It was the city’s arteries, connecting all the places we look to for a permanent sense of belonging, that comfort us when the coffee shops are full, the library is closed, and the pubs are loud. When nothing else seems to quite fit. When everything keeps changing and we want to stand still for a moment.

The third place acts as a refuge between home and work, from our inside and outside worlds — where we can detach from the roles we play all day, and let our authentic selves connect with our surroundings. And for me, I now realize, there’s no better place to do that than right outside on the streets of London.

When I walk around the city, past winding passages, littered squares, and traffic-jammed roads lined with angry drivers and extravagant townhouses, London’s total, messy truth is laid out unashamedly and unapologetically in front of me. I couldn’t ask for anything more from my third place.

* * *

Jessica Brown lives, writes — and walks — in London.

Editor: Sari Botton