New Orleans For years, many have talked about the importance in communities of so-called “third spaces.” These are the wonderful in-between areas between the public and private spheres, occupying what was hoped to be a neutral space of comfort and security for all. Third spaces were places where money and status, race and gender, played no part. These were places that welcomed all and built community.
For the eleven years that we ran Fair Grinds Coffeehouse in New Orleans as a social enterprise, we tried, as best we could, to create this kind of space. We didn’t try to erase who we were, or what we would stand for. It was on the walls. It was in the coffee, which was always 100% fair-trade. We lost one regular who was a Glenn Beck fangirl during the first week and some others over the years for one thing or another, but we didn’t proselytize or force our work and politics on customers. We wanted to be whatever a third space might be. It all worked until it didn’t, in our case the pandemic left nothing over for our mission of supporting community organizing, when we could hardly pay our bills.
We might have been lucky to shut down when we did. The polarity in American now threatens to put an end to any fairy tale notion of third spaces. I read about a coffeehouse in New York where owners and workers are at odds over the politicization and polarization in the community between being pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian. So much for neutral ground, which used to even be the name of another coffeehouse in New Orleans.
Take libraries as another powerful example. Sure, they are public, but they have always had a “third space” mission of community space and community service across an increasingly wide range that has expanded way past just books. I read a local news story about a dispute at the Lafayette, Louisiana, library that was so bizarre that if I didn’t read it myself, I wouldn’t believe it. The former head of the Lafayette library board Robert Judge had to step down to satisfy the community because of a series of controversial actions under his leadership, as well as several instances of flaunting the state’s Open Meetings law. The article covered how he had managed to engineer another outrage in a closed session that seemed to obviously break the law again. He wanted to discuss the American Library Association, a 150-year-old group, which seems as plain vanilla as anyone could imagine. Judge had a dossier prepared, which he didn’t provide to the board’s attorney or interim director or to anyone, but his allies.
What was up? Judge and one ally, “alleged…that the American Library Association is pushing a Marxist ideology and trying to sneak sexually inappropriate materials in the children’s sections of libraries, and therefore the Lafayette library system should disassociate itself from the organization that accredits librarians.” Judge claimed to be an expert on these kinds of things saying, “…Marxism is sometimes called communism but it’s really socialism and Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler was the National Socialist German Worker’s Party.” This stuff is so whack it would be hilarious and he would be a laughing stock in any other time, but in fact he was pushing a resolution saying the “…association supports a Marxist ideology and is antagonistic toward family life and the right of parents to raise their children with their own morals.” Meaning, it seems clear, whatever morals and life that Judge and his buddies want to demand of all others. They even wanted to bar their workers from paying their own dues to the Association in order to continue to be accredited, but were forced to concede that was a bridge too far, despite being miles from shore already with deep water up to their necks.
This kind of polarization serves only one purpose, which is to segregate and isolate everyone into homogenous communities where people all think alike, look alike, and follow the same line. Judge says he’s not for fascism, but that’s not convincing. He’s definitely not willing to tolerate any views but his own, and that makes even libraries a battleground and not a neutral space for all that builds community. Not only is this killing third spaces, it’s un-American, and it’s not just me who thinks so.