I feel that most Dawson students are familiar with the notorious and densely populated Smoke Spot, located by Dawson’s main entrance on Maisonneuve. Even those who don’t frequent the Spot themselves will have surely walked by it, heard of it, or referred to it in passing.
I became familiar with the Spot before the end of my first week at Dawson in September 2021. Despite my being a second-year student, I had almost no friends at Dawson. Though I would hardly ever describe smoking as a fortunate habit to have, in this case, it was. Within my first few cigarette breaks, I had already become acquainted with more people than I had spoken to in any of my classes.
Opportunities for socializing within Dawson’s walls during the heavily restricted pandemic era were difficult to come by. As a result, many students turned to the sidewalk outside instead, which is how it came to serve as an unconventional “third place.”
The “third place” is a sociological term that refers to social surroundings that are separate from the “first” and “second” places of home and work. In the past, these third places took the form of places of worship, clubs, cafés, community centres, and plazas. American urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg describes these places as “anchors” of community life that should be conducive to social interaction, conversation, and general group leisure activities. In his book, The Great Good Place (1989), Oldenburg outlined eight defining characteristics of these places. He states that, unlike work and home, attendance in third places is not obligatory. Often occupied by what he calls “the regulars,” the place encourages conversation, intermingling, and interaction between friends and acquaintances. In keeping with these requirements, they must be accessible to all, regardless of class or social status, and should maintain a homelike, laid-back, and playful vibe. Oldenburg stresses the importance of these places, as they are critical to civil society and engagement, democracy, and establishing a sense of belonging within a community.
While these types of places were abundant in North America just a few decades ago, the 21st century marked a shift in the types of third places we frequent. With the advent of technology, social media, and virtual worlds, North Americans are more inclined to fulfill their social needs in a virtual space, favoring online interaction over in-person. We may attribute this shift to a variety of factors, notably the innumerable appealing qualities of the internet (anonymity, ability to exist through a persona, abundant resources of information and knowledge). This push towards online communities was propelled by COVID-19, quarantine mandates making online interaction the best alternative to in-person interaction.
This cultural shift was particularly damaging for Gen Z. The social restrictions of the pandemic isolated the youth from their peers at a point in their development when social interaction is critical to growth. This resulted in an uptick in the prominence of social anxiety and the popularity of online communities.
This issue predates the pandemic. Gen Z has consistently struggled to find third places that do not involve alcohol and drug consumption or spending money. The effects of this dilemma are especially tangible in Montréal. During the warmer months, outdoor spaces like parks make perfectly suitable third places. Come winter, these cease to be an option, relegating the youth to their respective homes or to the aforementioned unsuitable third places.
This brings us back to Dawson. Last year, much of the campus was strictly supervised, and the enforced rules regarding masks and social distancing made socializing with other students a feat. As a result, students flocked to the surrounding sidewalks of the college as The Spot fulfilled most of Oldenburg’s characteristics and provided a space separate from social status.
The 21st century teenager’s dilemma is centered around feeling a kind of perpetual lonesomeness, yet being unable to bridge the gap between yourself and another. In kindergarten, making friends is as easy as asking “Do you want to play together?”. As teenagers, the perceived approachability of our peers dissipates. The carefree spirit of childhood is replaced by a self-conscious one by age thirteen, as we realize how unjustified interaction makes us vulnerable to rejection and judgement. Smoking dispels these fears. The “Hey, do you have a lighter?” method facilitates initiating conversation. Sharing a lighter surpasses class, status, and hierarchical divides, enabling one to meet all kinds of people.
I don’t want my analysis of smoking as a social activity to be misconstrued as pro-smoking propaganda. In fact, the opposite is true. It is unfortunate that the Smoke Spot is one of the only genuine third places I have encountered. Although centred around vice, it is free from the total intoxication encouraged by bars and the consumerist requirements of costly activities. And unlike the coffee shops or cinemas, smoking encourages mingling between strangers. Most so-called “third places” advertised to 18- to 25-year-olds do not fulfill the requirements outlined by Oldenburg. I am all for a less cancerous third place for Dawson students, but it seems that none of equal effectiveness or popularity have arisen as of yet.