One of the drawbacks of newspapers, except in the smallest of towns, is that their coverage of neighborhood events — things of concern primarily or only to those in your neighborhood — is necessarily limited. Newspapers have to cover things that interest a large part of their readership. While some of the events in your neighborhood are big enough to merit newspaper coverage (say, the meth bust across the street), the local paper will completely ignore questions that could matter only to people within a few-block radius.
For example, how do you find out:
- Who’s the new family that just moved in?
- What’s with the zoning exemption the guy down the street wants?
- Why have those grassy lots owned by the State just sat unused for years, when they could be made into a park?
- What brought the police to that apartment building? Were there arrests?
- Has anybody in the neighborhood died or been injured recently?
- When is GHU going to fix that sinkhole?
- Why is this family selling their house? Are they moving Outside, or is there a problem with the house or neighbors?
- Have any of the neighbors of that meth lab been hurt by fumes?
(All of these are things I’ve wondered about my own neighborhood.)
Of course, with most of these questions, a person could answer them just by knocking on a door or two, or by making a couple of calls to the right agencies.
However, the same can be said for much of the news that appears in the daily paper: either it’s a matter of public record, or the parties involved will be able to answer your questions. But we expect newspapers to aggregate this public or easily-available information, because (1) those with reliable knowledge will tire of being quizzed by everyone who wants to know, and (2) the job of pulling all this information together regularly is a burden for one person and is better shared among many investigators. Without newspapers (or other “research aggregators”), we would all be far less informed, even about things that (taken individually) are easy for a person to find out.
Is there a place you can go for news about your neighborhood? I’ll wager not.
I’m not suggesting that every neighborhood needs a newspaper: it would probably require more people than are interested in putting it together, and more time from them than they’re willing to regularly commit.
I am suggesting that a much more sustainable, informal, and democratic option exists, at least in sufficiently dense neighborhoods: the neighborhood hangout, what Ray Oldenburg calls the “third place”. As I’ve said before, third places are public places that are welcoming to all and that give people a chance to be somewhere other than home or work. They might be cafés, pubs, hair salons, old-fashioned drug stores, or even post offices.
Third places are places people spend time in — not the in-and-out of a restaurant or a grocery store, but leisurely, relaxed time. In third places, people know (and are known by) the others there, which is most of the appeal. This does not mean that these people are all friends. But they are at least casually acquainted with most of the others, and friends are often to be found there.
The third place is a clearinghouse for neighborhood news. It’s there that you should be able to hear the scuttlebutt on the new neighbors, or get the skinny on the sinkhole. There you should be able to find out who the trustworthy and untrustworthy characters are, who has children the age of yours, who needs help shoveling their driveway, who knows a good contractor, who’s causing the noise problem, and who’s writing down license-plate numbers and calling the police.
Who better than the neighbors themselves to report on the news? People will take an amazing interest in the lives of their neighbors and the life of their neighborhood. But they need a place to play host to their gatherings and to hear the news; otherwise, they’ll most likely not meet at all.
My friend, neighbor, and fellow Fairbanks blogger Theresa says that LuLu’s Bagels is her third place. I’d like to call McCafferty’s mine. Yet Oldenburg says that third places are almost always local — that is, serving a neighborhood clientele. When an establishment has the business of people from all over town, it’s always filled with new faces, and these make those who would frequent it — even the neighbors — feel more guarded and less welcome. Familiarity and comfort are the hallmarks of third places.
If you were to have a third place in your neighborhood — that is, within a five- or ten-minute walk of your house — what would you want it to be like? What kind of business would it do? Would it cater to certain interests or to certain types of people? What disadvantages do you think might come with it?