Most days since the middle of March, I wake up, take my hound on a walk, do Pilates with my mom over Facetime, begin a boundless log of Zoom classes and meetings, then maybe hop on a happy hour call with friends or family before exhaustedly making dinner and winding down for the evening.
Many of us have been sheltering in place in homes that have become workplaces, restaurants, schools, gyms, and bars, among other things — seemingly overnight. One day, we were rushing around to get to these different places, and then some day in the middle of March, we stopped.
Many of us temporarily live in what I have begun to call “collapsed places” – all the places we used to go “collapsed” to fit under one roof.
Years ago, a college professor of mine, Bill Savage, stood at a whiteboard and wrote out the following equation: “SPACE + VALUE = PLACE.” He based this equation on the work of the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, who distinguishes between the meaning of “space” and “place”: Tuan writes that “space” is the abstract representation of geographical boundaries, and “place” is a pause.
In other words, place is space, imbued with meaning. In 1982, Raymond Oldenburg and Dennis Brisset went on to propose that we have three types of places: first places (home), second places (school/work), and third places (such as bars, community centers, churches, sports clubs, coffee shops, you get the idea). These different places mean different things to us: at home, we may find family, a sense of security; at work or school, we find purpose, drive; in third places, we find belonging, connection, collective meaning.
Many of us now inhabit collapsed places. Bill Savage wrote about this in the Chicago Reader, recognizing how we now work in the same place we parent and teach and cook and drink and play and more. We have become so aware of the places we miss. Many of us for the first time recognize the unique roles that first, second, and third places fill in our lives. And many of us are wearily, retroactively, grateful for those distinctions.
Yet as a social worker and researcher, I am committed to understanding the ways this unprecedented moment impacts those most vulnerable among us. For those of us who are safely sheltered at home, this moment may inspire empathy towards those in our social world who experience more permanently collapsed places – folks who are incarcerated, folks experiencing homelessness or housing instability, folks in nursing homes, to name a few.
Those of us who are safely sheltered in our temporary collapsed places may have the tiniest keyhole view into the limitations that collapsing our places has on the human spirit; and accordingly, the creativity that often emerges to get our needs met as social and purpose-seeking creatures.
Meanwhile, we cannot ignore that folks in permanently collapsed places are at an unprecedented health risk versus those of us sheltering at home; glaring social inequities have rendered their collapsed places enmeshed and overlapping.
On April 22, 238 residents at Sterling Correctional Facility tested positive for COVID-19 in late April. The week of May 4th, 26% of asymptomatic individuals tested by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless tested positive for COVID-19.
I collaborate with both Sterling Correctional Facility and the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless in my research. And of course, some of this research is stalled as we shelter in place.
But from my vantage point at my little guest room desk, tirelessly trying to break up my days through coffee breaks in my kitchen, Pilates in my basement, and Zoom happy hours on the porch (and yes, as I write this, I am reminded again of my wild amounts of privilege), I bear witness to the glaring and widespread inequities which allow some of us (like me) to shelter in my safe-collapsed-home-place while so many others — those who are incarcerated, unstably housed, among many, many others — are forced to commingle in collapsed, overlapping places which were not built with their humanity in mind.
Many of us will begin to re-engage with our first, second, and third places over the coming months. Many others will not. For those of us who will begin to expand our geographic and social spheres soon, please don’t unwittingly dive into the hustle and bustle and rushing.
Remember this collapsed-place feeling. This feeling is learning. This feeling is empathy. This feeling, though it may not feel like it, is connection.
Danielle Maude Littman is a PhD student at the University of Denver.