Credit: cornelia li

As Chicagoans grapple with the new reality of the COVID-19 pandemic and the radical restrictions which public health requirements have put on the places in which we live, work, and play, it makes sense to step back and ponder some aspects of what makes the situation such an emotional and psychological challenge.

Just in case you hadn’t noticed, we’re all more than a bit freaked out. Except for the Fox-News-viewing “It’s just the flu!” true believers, we fear that the virus will sicken, or kill, us, our loved ones, our families, and friends. Government orders that everyone except essential workers stay home and shelter in place has transformed the interlocking mosaic of private, semipublic, and public places that define Chicago, from our homes to our restaurants to our lakefront parks.

Our sense of place, and where we fit into it and how it works, has shattered.

This fragmentation might be especially true in regards to food and drink: hot dog stands, taquerias, cafes, diners, restaurants, and bars are all either closed or limited to to-go and delivery orders. The food might be the same, and the drink to go too; but it feels different (and it is different) to pay with proper social distance and eat your meal at home. Haunted by the social conviviality of just a few weeks ago, places seem out of joint.

My mantra for analyzing place comes from Yi-Fu Tuan, a geographer/philosopher, who wrote: “What begins as undifferentiated space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with values.” Or, to reduce it to a shorthand equation, space plus values equals place. S + V = P.

Thanks to COVID-19, the values that define our places (perhaps especially places like restaurants and bars), and distinctions between different sorts of places have been obliterated. Our accustomed habits of moving every day through places that have different sets of values (emotional, financial, and psychological) are done for the foreseeable future.

The other key thinker to bring in here is sociologist Ray Oldenburg. To oversimplify the argument of his classic The Great Good Place, we divide the urban world into three kinds of place, each of which (back to Tuan) emphasizes a different set of values.

Home is the First Place. It’s private, and where our relationships with other people are defined by family ties: even for the many people who live alone, our sense of a home is emotionally defined by parents and children, or larger extended families, or lovers. Home is the place we start our days, and where we (usually) end them. It’s where we keep all our stuff. We shape our First Places to reflect who we are.

In the world of late capitalism, of course, we spend more time in our Second Place: work. In those mostly semipublic spaces, relationships between people exist primarily in economic terms. No matter how much you might love your job, it’s still someplace you have to go, to make the money our system demands of you (to pay for your First Place and all the stuff in it). We shape our homes; our jobs shape us.

Right now, our stay-at-home/work-from-home (unless you’re essential) reality obliterates this distinction between First and Second Places. The values of home (solitude, intimacy, relaxation, rest, connecting with loved ones) now must accommodate the contradictory values of work (groups, hierarchies, professional distance, tasks to be completed).

But even worse, our current crisis prevents us from accessing the vital Third Places that in so many ways make life in a big city worth living.

Third Places are where you go and form communities based not on familial or economic relationships, but on some common interest, usually with people you don’t work with and aren’t related to. Cafes, diners, restaurants, and bars are all places where we embrace a psychological and physical framework, a set of values, distinct from those at work or home. They are semipublic spaces, with low standards for entry (you usually do gotta spend some money, but not necessarily a lot). There are established communities (regulars) who are open to new people joining their group. Third Places provide literal and metaphysical sustenance, food for the body and nourishment for the socializing soul.

In COVID-19 Chicago, we are locked out of the Third Place.

This situation creates cognitive dissonance, as demonstrated by lots of the things people are doing to cope and sharing on social media. Setting up a cute little desk in your house or apartment that’s designated your Work Space just draws an imaginary line distinguishing a Second Place within the First Place.

That distinction might function adequately, but it’s much tougher to recreate Third Places: we can Zoom a happy hour drink with friends, but it’s planned and fundamentally different. Any Zoom meeting is a singular conversation: one person talking, the rest listening or waiting to talk. Put six people at the end of a bar, and you might have three different one-on-one conversations running at once, or one four-person conversation, one guy doing the crossword, and a third just staring meditatively into the middle distance. Virtual bars necessarily lack many of the joys of actual Third Places: running into an old pal unexpectedly, or having some random person turn out to be pretty insightful about sports, theater, or politics. Virtual connections along established lines don’t allow for new connections to spontaneously grow.

In effect, our access to Third Places has been reduced to that saddest of First Place renovations, the basement wet bar. It might physically resemble a real tavern, with a polished bartop, a genuine brass footrail, solid barstools, coasters boosted from local bars, shiny restaurant-supply-house accoutrements and glassware, framed sports memorabilia, and even a neon or two.

But it’s still in your home and so private rather than public, part of your First Place rather than a Third Place. And during the COVID-19 Stay-Home-Save-Lives world, it’s your Second Place too.

Right now, Chicago feels like a shoddily constructed three-story concrete-and-brick building that has pancaked in an earthquake. We’re all confined to the basement, trying to function under the rubble as though we still had access to all three floors. v