Need a new place to hang out? Look no further than Soho House, which just opened in Portland’s Central Eastside: A combination community workspace, gym, restaurant, social club, and solution to any isolation you may feel. We all know about the demise of American public gathering places—what could be better than a local Soho House (a chain club with more than locations around the globe) to make Portlanders social again? 

Hold on a second… I’m getting  new information. Yearly membership at this place starts at about $2,000 (people younger than 27 pay less, though!)? Getting in is also very difficult, with preferential treatment for membership going to hot Instagram influencers and designers at Wieden+Kennedy? Okay, that changes things. Let’s recalibrate and try again. 

Ever heard of the term “third place”? The concept, which refers to a now-endangered setting for people to socialize outside of the home or workplace, really started making the rounds online a couple years ago. While people resonated with the idea for good reason, “third place” is now dangerously close to meaningless corporate buzzword territory, evident to me by its inclusion on Soho House Portland’s website. 

In a January blog post profiling some of Soho House Portland’s founding members, local designer Lena Vasilenko Tsymbal brings up the concept of “third places” in relation to the chic, exclusive new clubhouse. 

“There is a trending conversation happening in our culture regarding a “third place”: essentially having somewhere to go that isn’t home or work, where one can come to exchange ideas, build relationships and have a good time,” Vasilenko Tsymbal said. “I’m really looking forward to Soho House being this place for me.” 

The sociologist who coined the term “third place” in the 1980s heralded the importance of such spaces, and said their increasing absence in American communities was a net negative for society. That idea has proven very resonant to people in the early 2020s, who emerged, lonely, from a global pandemic and realized they had nowhere to hang out. But we need not be so desperate for accessible public spaces to believe Soho House fits the bill. 

Why we’re losing third places, and what we can do about it

What accounts for the decline of third places? Well, the internet, obviously, as well as a dwindling U.S. religious population (churches and temples are quintessential third places). The necessary isolation during the pandemic made bad conditions even worse, as businesses shuttered or tightened their hours (pour one out for 24-hour diners), and workplaces went remote, likely permanently changing socialization habits. 

And then there’s car culture: The insidious reason behind much alienation and harm in the United States. In one very popular TikTok video from September 2022, writer/online urbanist Nathan Allebach lays bare the problem, positing the loss of third places is “largely perpetuated by car dependence and urban sprawl.”

“All cities, big and small, used to have densely populated downtowns, where people experienced chance encounters and supported local businesses with foot traffic,” Allebach says in the video, adding that Euclidean zoning (the separation of land uses—i.e. commercial, residential, industrial—into separate zones) “segregated suburban housing from shopping districts,” making it so many Americans are forced to get on the highway in order to get a cup of coffee. And when they get to the coffee shop, it’s probably a drive-thru. 

Most of Portland doesn’t suffer from the same urban sprawl nightmare that Allebach describes. But our city’s definition of “third place” is being tarnished by car-centric policies, as well as policies that are deferential to the wealthy at the exclusion of everyone else.

When business owners throw fits about plans to remove on-street parking to install bike lanes, they’re rejecting a role as a social gathering site for all people. Many classic “third places,” like parks, libraries, and public plazas, are painted by local media as dangerous and overrun by homeless people and drug users. Instead, in some cases, developers have decided to redefine the notion of public space as, well, private. 

When Darcelle XV Plaza opens downtown in 2025, replacing the old O’Bryant Square, its primary attraction will be a dog park to serve the wealthy visitors and residents at the Ritz-Carlton across the street. Not only will the plaza be absent of food carts, which would actually bring much-needed foot traffic to the area, it will be surrounded by six-foot-tall fences to “ensure safety” (keep homeless people out). What could have been a wonderful, car-free public plaza in the middle of downtown Portland will now be an enclave for the rich. 

Most of Portland doesn’t suffer from the same urban sprawl nightmare that Allebach describes. But our city’s definition of “third place” is being tarnished by car-centric policies, as well as policies that are deferential to the wealthy at the exclusion of everyone else. 

Out in the less-wealthy parts of town east of 82nd Avenue, where the roads are wide and  drivers are recklessly fast, people who have been pushed out of central Portland fear for their lives when crossing the street. These dangerous conditions have made it difficult for people to access the third places they do have, and hard to imagine new ones popping up—at least, not places accessible to people of all incomes. 

But all hope is not lost. Despite the doom and gloom, there are still a lot of cool places to hang out in Portland. In order to find them, one must get rid of the broadcast media host inside their head: Our city’s libraries and parks are excellent, actually, and it’s okay if you see homeless people there. Plus, Portlanders literally love to hang out, and we’re great at creating new, unconventional third places to suit that fancy. (A few examples: Weekly “coffee outside” meet-ups, Depave’s pop-ups on SE 7th Avenue, the pandemic-era outdoor dining areas that we refuse to give up, public plazas like Ankeny Alley, Bike Happy Hour on SE Ankeny’s Rainbow Road, and the worker-owned pub containing a radical leftist library conveniently located down the street from Soho House.)

If you’re still hell-bent on joining Soho House, fine. But don’t forget that as far as third places go, we have better options.