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Wagon Wheel Stories by Dave Engen and John Cross.

Wagon Wheel Stories by Dave Engen and John Cross.

In November I wrote a short post that revolved around the notion of community. I consider community an integral part of who I am, so this post addresses the subject again from a different angle.

A couple of things lately have me thinking about “community.”

First, I got my copy of Wagon Wheel Stories, a compilation of vignettes and photos featuring regular customers of the Wagon Wheel Café in Mankato, Minnesota. Dave Engen and John Cross first published these stories as a series in The Mankato Free Press, where John is chief photographer, and I’m delighted to see them collected in a hardcover, glossy-paged book.

If you are familiar with small towns, then you know the Wagon Wheel Café. It’s not called “The Wagon Wheel” in your town, but you know what it looks like. You know the people who gather there. You know the sense of community it fosters. In Waseca when I was growing up, it was the Busy Bee Café. The café is a quintessential piece of Main Street Americana.

In the book, Dave talks about “third places,” a term coined by Ray Oldenburg, a sociologist who studies informal public places. “Third places” are outside of the home (first place) and work (second place).  These are places where people purposely gather with others. “Third places” are integral to our communities. In these places spontaneous conversations thrive. We gather with diverse groups of people who can expose us to ideas that we might not otherwise come across. We can also find commonalities within these groups to help us feel not so alone.

We’re just a few weeks past the national, state, and local elections in the United States, and this is a time where “third places” like cafes are more critical than ever. I’m quite certain that people who gather at the Wagon Wheel do not all hold the same political beliefs. At the Wagon Wheel you’re going to find a huge spectrum of beliefs and ideologies. Yet, people there can get past that and just have a cup of coffee with each other.

We seem so polarized as a nation. Listen to “This American Life” podcast that highlights the intense divisions between people. Technology allows us to withdraw from society, to sit in our homes entertained by our TVs, mobile phones, and other devices. In our homes, no one challenges us to think differently (generally). Through the many media choices, it is easy for us to find a point of view with which we can agree.

To illustrate my point: When I was growing up, we had four or five main television channels. If we wanted to watch TV, we didn’t have a lot of choice. And if we wanted to watch the news, we had to watch network and local news, which was packaged to appeal to a broad audience.

But now, a television package may consist of 100 channels. We could watch the Golf Channel all day long, or HGTV. There’s probably a channel out there that represents our interests. If we don’t want to be exposed to other points of view, we don’t have to. And I worry what this does to our sense of community.

Does your community have a “third place”? If so, do you go there? On a weekly basis I spend between 4-6 hours at a coffee shop. There might be days at the coffee shop where I don’t see anyone I know or talk to anyone. But I still like watching people come through the door and sit down. Even if I don’t talk to anyone, it helps me overcome a sense of isolation.

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