Why We Should Put Third Places First

Image via the UNESCO Courier

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Growing up in Paris, I always felt like living in a village. Whenever I talk about it, the reaction is often surprise. And yet, from the age of 3 to 17, I grew up in a community made up of a good fifty people, young and old, who congregated between various businesses such as bars, the supermarket, and the café opposite my school, essential for parents who had just dropped off their children. There, going grocery shopping is impossible without spending at least twenty minutes chatting with someone you know. This environment and these familiar figures do a lot to make my neighborhood feel like home. When I left my neighborhood and hometown to study, first in another city and then abroad, I hoped to find those social connections again. In the course of associative activities, but also certain places (a brioche restaurant and a bookshop in Lille, a yarn shop in New York), I was able to meet some fantastic people and rediscover the feeling of coming home when I crossed the threshold of a place. After some research, I realized that this kind of place had a name and a theoretical framework: “the third place.”

I. “There’s A Place” (The Beatles)

In the 1980s, in his book “The Great Good Place,” urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the term “third place” to describe the informal public meeting places that anchor community life, away from the two usual social environments of the home (the “first place”) and the workplace (the “second place”).

The third place is a neighborhood meeting spot where people can regularly visit and meet friends, neighbors, work colleagues, and strangers in a relaxed, welcoming atmosphere. These “good places” facilitate occasional social interaction and civic engagement outside our private, residential, and professional lives. Ray Oldenburg has established several criteria for recognizing a third place: it must be accessible to all, inclusive, informal, low-cost, neutral, host regulator patrons, and have a cheerful atmosphere. Conversation is typically the main activity of visitors.

The eight characteristics of third places. Source.

Third places are nothing new; Oldenburg’s work shows they go back a long way in history. Similar to today, the first third places were centered around beverages: coffee, from the 16th century onwards in Europe, or alcohol. (It should be noted that these two beverages generally lead to different behaviors: intellectual discussions, debates, and reflections on the one hand, emotions, fun, and laughter on the other.) To cite a few examples, consider Middle Eastern coffees imported to England in the 17th century, quickly becoming popular. When King Charles II attempted to suppress coffeehouses in 1675, the outcry was so great that he withdrew his edict ten days later. As places of free expression with a certain level of equality, cafés can be seen as the precursors of democracy. Today, such places can be found in the plethora of bars, coffee shops, alehouses, tea houses, wine bars, Biergärten in Germany, pubs in the UK, the French café, and so on.

Some examples are also highly political, such as the American taverns of colonial times. John Adams said in 1761: “These [public] houses are in many places the nurseries of our legislators…”. In Paris, the Café Procope, in particular, was an artists’ and intellectuals’ meeting place for Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, and d’Alembert. During the French Revolution, it was the headquarters of the Club des Cordeliers with Danton and Marat, where you could also find Robespierre and the Jacobins. It was a meeting place for writers, intellectuals, politicians, and the Parisian elite for many years. Over and above their social benefits and the well-being of populations, third places play an essential role in promoting democracy.

However, it is best to take a concrete example to fully understand what a third place means for those who come to it. In this case, it will be Cleo’s Yarn Shop, located at 35 Meadow Street in Bushwick, Brooklyn, New York.

II. “New York State of Mind” (Billy Joel)

Third places have been integral to cities’ social fabric and dynamism for centuries. In densely populated metropolitan areas, where private living spaces are limited, these public gathering places (cafés, libraries) take on added importance as anchors of community life, helping to activate and enliven the public realm of cities.

Third places with horizontal seating, such as cafés and pubs, extend their activities onto sidewalks and squares, activating public spaces and blurring the boundaries between private enterprise and the public realm. Successful third places also generate familiarity and a sense of belonging within urban neighborhoods. An ideal third place is one where you know the social rituals and are greeted by your first name upon entering. More generally speaking, third places play an essential role in social leveling and the democratization of urban space.

In New York, third places have facilitated the intermingling of the city’s incredibly diverse populations and the cross-pollination of cultures, ideas, and social movements. 

Examples of their historical importance abound. The city’s lively neighborhood bars, from the East Village to Brooklyn, enabled the mixing of socioeconomic backgrounds. Classic restaurants and cafés, some made famous by “Friends or Seinfeld,” brought together regulars from all walks of life over a meal. Parks like Washington Square Park and plazas served as third venues for civic engagement, protests, and spontaneous street performances. Social clubs, pool halls, and barbershops provided immigrant and minority communities with their third place to put down roots. Bohemian artistic and literary circles flourished in third-place establishments such as Greenwich Village cafés in the early 20th century. Public bookshops and the openness to the world they make possible are also good examples. New York has no shortage of third places, and it’s the American city with the most satisfied Americans when it comes to third places.

Infographic on third places in U.S. cities. Source.

This document also helps us understand what people seek in a third place: a place to relax and socialize. It also tells us that restaurants and coffee shops aren’t the only third places where people gather, and this third category, which still corresponds to 41% of respondents, struggles to define itself. New York also offers a large number of these more original venues. One example is Central Park and its community of birders, as shown in the documentary “The Central Park Effect.” I recently spent a morning birdwatching with a birder, and my brief experience aligns with this observation. All along our walk, my guide kept greeting her acquaintances and friends, explaining that seeing the same people with the same interests as us every day eventually leads to forming friendships.

Another of these quirky third places is the yarn store I mentioned earlier, Cleo’s Yarn Shop.

III. “Imagine” (John Lennon)

Cleo’s Yarn Shop sells skeins of merino, mohair, cotton, and other yarns, as well as books and accessories (called notions) useful to all knitters and crocheters. Materials for other fiber arts like loom weaving, tapestry weaving, punch needle, etc. are also for sale. Further, the store offers an extensive catalog of classes, valuable advice, and one of its most unique features, weekly craft circle events and all one-off events (comedy shows, Halloween, tattooing, concerts), where you can come and practice your hobby (knitting, in my case) in good company.

Opened in autumn 2022 by Cleo Malone, the yarn shop quickly grew around a community of enthusiastic fibers and is now a must-visit venue, open seven days a week. Cleo, the owner, explained to me that even at 17, they knew pretty early on that they wanted to open a store like this one day. Their mother’s store had been open for three years, and they loved working there. After college, they were partners in her store before deciding to move elsewhere. The pandemic slowed their project down a bit. Still, after a year of living in Brooklyn, they decided they wanted to stay, and since Williamsburg/Bushwick didn’t yet have a yarn store, “it seemed like the perfect time and place!” When I asked them if they intended to create community events from the outset, Cleo explained that they wanted the store to be “welcoming, inspiring, colorful, and encouraging,” as well as accommodating to what its customers desired. This demand prompted them to host an incremental number of one-off and regular events, such as Happy Hour, Fridays from 5 to 7, and Sundays from 6:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.

You can find me there every week, but this time, I went with a specific goal: to find out who my fellow knitters and crocheters were and what brought them here in the first place. So, I interviewed a dozen Friday Happy Hour guests, regulars, and newcomers aged 20 to 48. Almost all those present identified themselves as female or non-binary. They have been knitting/crocheting for over 15 years or just for 3 months. I asked them three questions: to introduce themselves, how often they come to Cleo/Happy Hours, and why.

Apart from those coming for the first time, most said they came “pretty frequently,” a wording that could indicate coming at least twice a month but also once or several times a week. When I asked them where they came from, the answers could be divided into two groups: those who live around a ten-minute walk from the store, and those who have a commute of over 40 minutes with the MTA and multiple changes. Most are New Yorkers, but some commute from outside the city, as was the case that evening for K. from New Rochelle (Metro North, then two subways).

When I asked why they were coming, the answers were consistent (I’d been careful to conduct the interviews in a slightly isolated area of the shop to avoid the respondents influencing each other). The word “community” came up about ten times in the answers (and I’ve heard it hundreds of times since I started frequenting New York crafters last September). Many explained that they came to knit/crochet (or any other portable fiber activity) in the company of people with similar hobbies, indicating many times that it was always easier to talk to people “interested in the things I’m obsessed about,” to quote S. Another S. explained that “knitting has the potential to be something very solitary,” but that Happy Hour allows her a “casual socialization” where you can “use your creativity to connect with a community.” Three people said they came to Cleo for Happy Hour specifically because the store offers the most room for its community of New York’s nine (which explains why many regulars commute long distances to get there). Many of the answers were similar, describing the joy of reuniting with “fiber friends.” The third reason given (after community and like-crafting people) was advice, with many respondents indicating that they could always use help or advice on a project (“cheaper than lessons,” “more fun to craft when surrounded with other people interested in it, especially in the beginning”). The responses emphasized the social aspect of these encounters, with T. explaining, for example, that at Cleo’s, “I don’t feel alone,” whether faced with the difficulties of a project or in her knitting practice.

It’s important to point out that the evening (as every week) was extremely friendly, with encouragement, advice, and gossip coming from every corner of the room. For example, when one of the participants showed his FO (finished object), the immediate reaction was applause and someone screaming, “Runway!” And the person performing the walk replies, “Boy, you guys are supportive.”

An episode such as this, added to the responses collected, clearly demonstrates that Cleo’s is a third place, at once social, activity-specific, and cultural.

However, it is an example of a third place that opened after the emergence of COVID-19. The pandemic has dramatically impacted our social relationships and, for many, has underlined the importance of third places. Concerning those peculiar times in our lives, one widely proposed hypothesis was that these third places could be dematerialized and exist virtually.

A recent example is the Animal Crossing New Horizons game, released on Nintendo Switch on March 20, 2020, which enabled eleven million players to come together virtually to play and spend time together.

Some studies seem to indicate that video games could fulfill certain functions of third places, such as satisfying the needs for “autonomy,” “relatedness,” and “competence.” But can third places be virtual (video games or social networks)? Ray Oldenburg thinks not. For him, third places are face- to-face phenomena. The idea that electronic communication permits a virtual third place is misleading. ‘Virtual’ means that something is like something else in both essence and effect, and that’s not true in this instance. When you go to a third place you essentially open yourself up to whoever is there.” So, for him, video games don’t offer the mix of familiar and unfamiliar people that a good third place does because you can choose who you play with (an opinion that could be challenged).

What a third place offers. Source.

In the meantime, the necessity and public usefulness of physical third places is well established. An essential element in making these places is the intention to create a community, which can also be added after a place has been created, as Cleo showed us. For them, “the surprisingly easy secret to community building is that all you have to do is provide a place and a time for people to meet on a regular basis. The rest creates itself.” In the future, Cleo would like to move into a larger space, incorporating a cafe into the shop. Given the evolution of Cleo’s Yarn Shop adventure (particularly the tight-knit community around the space), they “would like to intentionally design a space that is conducive to both shopping and regular craft circles.”

Once again, the question of intention is crucial. Many of New York’s planning policy decisions depend on who owns the city. This reality has very concrete applications regarding city development, fighting gentrification, and priorities. However, third locations are rarely priorities for decision-makers. The benefits of such spaces are many: social mix, well-being, neighborhood community, and democracy promotion, to name but a few. It may be time for public urban planning policies to give a more prominent place to third places and the communities they create. We must not belittle how valuable a sense of community is, whether for the well-being of individuals or society as a whole. It’s high time we made third places a priority so that everyone can find their place.

Cleo’s Yarn Shop photos courtesy of Cleo Malone, or taken by me.