Great Third Places
By Jason Miller
Third places -- those gathering spots we frequent outside of home and work -- are one of the hallmarks of good urbanism. They serve as connectors for communities where unrelated people can meet, spending as much time as they wish in the company of others for no specific or planned purpose. Third places are comfortable. They are amiable. They are the original think tanks.
In his book, "The Great Good Place," Ray Oldenburg sets forth criteria for what makes a third place and argues passionately for their creation and preservation. For Oldenburg, third places are inclusive and local, meaning they serve their immediate communities.
Along with his intellectual examination of third places, though, Oldenburg is careful to point out that "the basic motivation; that which draws people back time and again is fun."
With that in mind, we've invited our readers to tell us about their favorite third places. Admittedly, not all of the places listed here meet every last one of Oldenburg's criteria. But in the spirit of the camaraderie that third places engender, we've included many that are on their way to becoming fully realized third places. At the very least, they are providing a service to their communities that is, sadly, becoming more and more scarce.
So, pull up a chair, order a drink, and smoke 'em if you've got 'em. Let's visit a few third places, in the words of the people who love them.
Issaquah Highlands, Wash.
Blakely Hall, the community center at Issaquah Highlands, is the major hub of activity on a daily basis. On any given day you will find a dozen moms meeting there to head out into the community to walk with their babies in strollers. You'll also find a Hebrew class under way, a group of residents from East India getting together to plan a New Year's celebration, a group of REALTORS® and builders planning for an open house event, a retail sports expo, a guys' night out with a friendly poker game, and a board meeting for the local schools foundation.
Open 15 hours every day. $7 dinners. Meatloaf. Specialty groceries and a bar all under one roof. Its intent? Intercept the tired suburban commuters, morning and night. Don't want to cook? Eat here or buy dinner to reheat at home. But stop here and meet your neighbors.
Seabrook is a brand-new town on the Washington coast, where residents have just started moving in. But it has already seen a "third place" spring into existence. That place is Crescent Park, Seabrook's large, central public park. Anchored by two large fire pits, the park has become a magnet of activity and fun for residents and visitors. On any given day you will find impromptu picnics, kids playing, people meeting and chatting while either sitting on benches or walking the path that encircles the space. In the evening or on gloomy days, the fire pits always attract a crowd, including plenty of kids with s'mores in mind.
Crescent Park is so much at the center of life in Seabrook that the developers find many people prefer to purchase a cottage that is right on the park, rather than one that is closer to the beach and offers a view. Buyers say they want to be where all the action is, and they relish the opportunity to meet other people at the park.
Santa Monica, Calif.
The Edgemar complex on Main Street in the Ocean Park district of Santa Monica doesn't have all of Oldenburg's third-place characteristics, but it does have as its key establishment Peet's Coffee, which serves a constant stream of caffeine addicts every morning, many of whom either yammer or hole up with the papers and laptops. What sets Edgemar apart is the courtyard behind Peet's that provides outdoor seating for both Peet's and the Ben & Jerry's ice cream shop next to Peet's. The courtyard is also surrounded by a few other shops, including a popular hairdresser, a museum gift shop, a store that sells lamps, and another that sells high-end bathroom and kitchen fixtures. There is also a high-end restaurant and the "Edgemar Center for the Arts," which has two Equity-Waiver theaters and an art gallery. On the second floor of Edgemar there are various offices and a post-production facility.
This piazzetta gets a lot of use. It is a nexus point both for residents and for the people who work nearby -- populations that to some degree overlap. It's particularly popular with stroller-pushers and dog-walkers, and on weekends Main Street also sees a lot of tourists -- there's a bar and restaurant scene at night and boutique shopping scene during the day.
And by the way, the designer of Edgemar was Frank Gehry.
Santa Monica, Calif.
The Prancing Pony Books & Café
St. Charles, Mo.
The Prancing Pony Books & Café is the most popular third place in The New Town at St. Charles, a new urban development near St. Louis, Mo. A replica of an old-fashioned train station, the Prancing Pony offers a café, coffee shop and bookstore in one. It also serves as a hangout on nights and weekends, serving fine wines and more than 40 imported beers from around the world.
The Prancing Pony is popular perhaps because of the unique, comfortable atmosphere it provides. The Jazz Courtyard in the back of the café provides the critical urban oasis that many of us desire. During the day, residents can be seen sipping on their cappuccino and reading the morning paper. The courtyard comes alive at night, with live music every Thursday night and open mike night every Friday. There is seating in the front of the café as well, as brightly colored chairs and wooden tables invite patrons into the semi-enclosed space. And then there are the monthly book discussion groups and children's book readings.
St. Peters, Mo.
Roxborough High School Track
If a "third place" can't be an extension of home or work, we ought to consider the gym, track, health club, tennis club, etc., as the most prevalent third places of this century. The other day I was leaving my third place (the Roxborough High School track in the Roxborough neighborhood), mopping my brow, when another regular said, "You're not gonna stay for the entertainment?" She was referring to the football team practicing in the middle, with their weird barked orders, chants, prayers and scrimmages.
For 13 years the skating rink at Penn was my third place. We were regulars, with a social hierarchy based on how good a skater you were and how many years you'd been coming to the sessions. These were serious figure skating sessions. The people practicing programs with their music on always had right of way. One woman who was incredibly fast was a major hog of the ice surface, program or not. She forced others off to the boards when she whipped by; very rude in any sense except the unspoken Rules of the Rink. She was a regular, and her skill gave her carte blanche; when she moved to California we missed her.
Parkway Bakery and Tavern
New Orleans, La.
Parkway Bakery and Tavern is a classic place a stone's throw from Bayou St. John and on reasonably high ground for New Orleans. The back part is the Po Boy shop; everybody likes the roast beef, hot sauce, dressed. I tend toward the meatball po boy, but don't wear white -- you will make a mess of yourself and love it. Po Boy side has long tables; everybody just sits together. The pub is around the other side, with more bar space than tables on the inside.
I saw [New Orleans Mayor] Ray Nagin in there recently. That same evening I also met a neighborhood leader who drew a detailed map of all the places to stay away from on a street by street basis. Just not enough police or national guard to patrol these low-lying, sparsely populated areas, so they belong to the drug dealers now. As I sat there and described to him my ideas for raised garden courtyards, his friend, an architect, walked in and then another friend, a medical student who has become a builder/renovator to pay for school. I probably learned more about how New Orleans works that night than I ever expected to, all kinds of stuff I never knew about plaster houses. Pretty cool to just hang out and be told so much about how planning and politics works from locals, and their opinions of everybody "from the outside."
Then the cooks finished and had a couple beers with us. If Parkway Tavern and Bakery isn't a third place, I just don't get it.
New Orleans, La.
Courtyard Wine & Cheese
Rosemary Beach, Fla.
Rosemary Beach, located on northwest Florida's Gulf Coast between Panama City and Destin, boasts Courtyard Wine & Cheese, tucked into the Main Street courtyard of the town center. Filled from afternoon through the night with residents and guests alike, Courtyard Wine & Cheese is a hub of activity, the place to catch up on all of the local goings-on over a bottle of fine wine and cheese board pairings. This place also offers a wine store and a tasting room that opens to an open-air courtyard with café seating amidst tropical plants, plus access to the Gourd Garden Courtyard Shop. With dogs, laptops and bare feet as the predominant accessories of Courtyard Wine & Cheese patrons, this is the place to be in Rosemary Beach.
A true locally-owned general store where you can buy everything from the best coffee on the coast to unique pre-made sandwiches to all the grocery items you could need. Saturday mornings on the front patio at Modica with a cup of coffee, a paper and a pastry is about as good a third place that you'll find along the Gulf Coast.
Sure, maybe in an academic sense, Modica Market doesn't fit a technical definition of a third place. But, in a real world, non-theoretical sense, Modica Market is a wonderful place for people to gather and interact. Both planned get-togethers and by-chance meetings are commonplace there.
Pike Road, Ala.
Alys Beach, Fla.
While Alys Beach is just gearing up, Friday evening socials at the Fonville Press coffee shop lead to some of the best conversation that one can find on the Gulf Coast. And with great books, a variety of papers and wonderful beverages, Fonville Press sets the bar high for the rest of Alys Beach.
Pike Road, Ala.
Dorset, United Kingdom
This pub in Poundbury is only five years old and already feels like a real pub, right down to the swirly carpet and Lincrusta paneled walls. We took a group of our major donors to visit Poundbury last year with lunch at the pub. We couldn't get them out of it after lunch! They only just made the train back to London in time, late in the afternoon.
Five Points Business District
Athens neighborhoods, particularly its first suburbs built when the streets were still dirt, are some of the best on the planet. Five Points, adjacent to the University's South Campus, is arguably the finest of the lot, with its own small business district at the heart, sprinkled with great third places. ADD Drug store has a bustling lunch counter that during the school year has people waiting in line for a seat, and everything is made from scratch -- no frozen hockey puck hamburgers here -- and the prices are out of the 1960s. On days when they are shorthanded, you might find pharmacist and owner Jim Horton helping at the grill, and regulars include students, moms with toddlers, or the rich and famous (hometown girl Kim Basinger drops by whenever she's in town).
Down the street is Jittery Joe's, a coffee shop and beans roaster in a converted gas station slapped with a coat of dormitory green paint. With the old service bays now a makeshift library -- books line the walls and patrons are known to sip a latte for an hour while reading through a classic novel or flipping pages of a picture book on Japan -- JJ's is a comfortable spot for writing your next book, talking politics, meeting up with friends, conducting an interview, or just watching the many people and dogs that take up residence at the sidewalk tables.
Five Points business district as a third place has a variety of other local businesses that can be reached on foot from surrounding apartments and houses. And just like with Cheers, everybody knows your name.
Roots Café & Cellar
I can make a pretty good case for Roots Cafe & Cellar in Milwaukee's Beer Line neighborhood. Organic foods, diverse people, great views of the city from a great patio.
Sometimes the great places are not those designed by the town planners -- though the openness in such designs leaves the possibility. They are, sometimes, the ones designed by neighbors, by those who have a vision that cannot be beaten down by a developer's dwindling funds or an HOA's maniacal fascination with legal liability.
One such place is Civano's Community Garden, built in a shape resembling the outline of Minnesota, wedged behind an alley of colored garage doors, not far from the "neighborhood center." Sited on a leftover parcel donated due to the sheer badgering of Civano pioneers, the garden -- with the exception of the hand-crafted adobe wall that surrounds it -- was fully built on the bent backs of volunteering neighbors who moved earth, rock, sand and concrete blocks over many months.
The community garden is a great place because of the unplanned and planned gatherings. My family and I have met many a neighbor there for the first time, even though we don't maintain a plot. It is a lovely place to stroll, to smell the peppers ripening on the vine, to sit and relax on a hand-built, wildly colored bench.
The planned events are just as colorful: last holiday season's gathering to fill over 500 small paper bags with sand and candles for Civano's luminaria display, a marshmallow roast followed by an impromptu chorale of favorite campfire songs, the make-your-own stepping stone party, where buckets of broken tiles, polished glass, and other decor were available for neighbors of all ages to ply into freshly poured concrete pavers for the paths of the garden and community school.
In a community where the "activity center" is locked night and day, with access provided only on special occasion; where the beautiful adobe meeting hall sits empty and inaccessible, and has for months; where even the pub promised so long ago stands on the corner of our main intersection, an externally completed shell mocking us (or at least mocking my thirst); in such a community, the community garden is truly a place for us to grow.
Cafe Flo is the place for the best tuna melt in the Western Hemisphere (wasabi-lime with Tillamook cheddar). It's across the street from the New Urban Builders office on the seam between downtown Chico and the neighborhood known as "the Streets" by locals. It's run by Mary and Katie Gardner and named for their mom, Flo. It serves as "conference room three" for staff from City Hall a block and a half away. There are four or five nonprofits within a two-block radius, so it is the crossroads for the Big Brother Big Sisters, the Methodist Church staff, River Partners and the local sustainability group. Live music on weekend evenings. Right next door to the local art house theatre, "The Pageant."
R. John Anderson
My all-time favorite third place is a dog park. Here in Wilmington the term "bark park" is used. When I lived in Dallas, a dog park was created that became the most heavily utilized piece of park land in the entire city. While much smaller in size, the dog runs up and down Riverside Park in New York City always have people and furry quadrupeds in attendance. A wooded mountain reservation abutting my hometown of Montclair, N.J., is rife with dogs and their owners hiking up and down the trails. While not officially sanctioned for off-leash canine strolling, dog owners typically unleash their pets when they are a good 100 to 200 feet from the trailhead. At dog parks, owner conversations typically revolve around pet age, nutrition, vets, training, breeds and odd pet habits. These lead to conversations about the people themselves. It is a great social forum for furry quadrupeds and their owners.
The Photographer's Gallery Café
Covent Garden, London
This café is in The Photographer's Gallery itself and has the sort of hush that you associate with galleries. Nevertheless, you can hold a discreet conversation with your friends; have a coffee, sandwich, soup or a cake; and spend as long as you want without any hassle from the staff. Customers take their own plates back to the counter. There are newspapers and photography magazines and flyers for events on the single long table down the middle of the room. It's a most welcome oasis from the madness and noise of central London!
Well, it's late, and I suppose we should head home.
But as you grab your things and settle your tab, take this
thought from Ray Oldenburg with you: "In third places .
the sustaining activity is conversation which is variously
passionate and light-hearted, serious and witty, informative and silly. And in the course of it, acquaintances
become personalities and personalities become true
characters -- unique in the whole world and each adding
richness to our lives."
According to author Ray Oldenburg,
third places must perform the
1. Serve as “ports of entry” where visitors and
newcomers may be introduced to many of
2. Serve as sorting areas, where people can discover others they like, others with similar
3. Serve as staging areas, where people can
meet in times of crisis (such as severe
4. Provide “public characters” (a Jane Jacobs-ism); i.e., those who know everybody in
the neighborhood and who care about the
5. Bring youth and adults together in relaxed enjoyment.
6. Provide places where people can visit daily, while meeting many friends.
7. Serve as political and intellectual fora.
8. Serve as offices.