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Where Is Your Third Place?

There is one thing cities provide in much greater abundance than suburbs: the essential “third places” in our lives that provide respite and relaxation for us outside our homes or workplaces.

Third Place
Third places are defined as one of three places that meet fundamental human needs: home, a first place; work, a second place; and a third place, where we go to find community, relaxation, and simply “be” when we aren’t at home or working.

For all the people who work from home offices, the line between the first and second places, home and work space, may have blurred, but it makes the third place even more important. We all need a common place to hang out, see friends, find conversation, or simply watch the world go by. We seek a place that is separate from our homes or workplaces and all their attendant comforts and irritations.

Third places are very individual. In a family of four, there could be four different third places: church, coffeehouse, club or park. They are where you go to get away from your immediate responsibilities and expectations. You don’t have to do housework or laundry; you don’t have to finish that project or spar with your partner. You are (temporarily) free to indulge your own thoughts, talk or not talk, do or not do anything.

In the city of St. Louis there are many good third-places: local coffeehouses like The Hartford, Shaw Coffee or even the London Tea Room. There are neighborhood bars and cafes where they get to know you and you can stay as long as you like. There are libraries, drop-in centers and parks. There are churches and clubs, both social and athletic. There are museums and entertainment districts like The Loop on Delmar or Washington Avenue downtown. And there are intentional places like Left Bank Books with book groups, author readings and community events. These third places are close at hand, across the street or down the block, most of them within walking distance.

The suburbs of St. Louis are trickier, especially in second-ring suburbs. Newer, more affluent suburbs like Chesterfield and Wildwood have been built with more modern sensibilities about community gathering spots and the intentional communities created by mixed-use construction. You may be more likely to hang out at commercially sponsored third places like Starbucks or the mall, but they exist and are well used.

The second-ring suburbs are in a tougher spot. They belong to an earlier time, before we realized how much we would miss the communal third places that are so abundant in the city. Like the outer-ring suburbs, they may have some commercially-sponsored places like Starbucks, McDonalds or Dennys, but there may be only one or two in a municipality and they are rarely within walking distance. There is a real dearth of small, local businesses like independent coffeehouses, casual cafes or bookstores. Which pretty much leaves the bar, gym or possibly church and almost all of them require driving in your car.

There is a misplaced attempt to fulfill this need for third places in the construction of suburban great rooms, finished basements and fully-equipped media rooms, but all of these fall short. A third place requires distance from home and family. It also requires diversity and randomness in the people you might observe or start a conversation with.
When I lived in Seattle, I could easily walk a few blocks to any of six coffeehouses, each with its own ambience and crowd of regulars. There were bookstores with cafes where you could hang out from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. When I lived in the South Grand area, I had my choice of places to hang out.

In Maryland Heights, I’m stumped. I occasionally get in the car and drive to Starbucks at Westport or I go farther afield to Creve Couer or Chesterfield. More and more, I drive farther to Main Street in St. Charles or into the city to find a third place, but none of them are my third place.

City planners take note: vibrant cities or suburbs don’t exist without a multitude of viable third places. And if you want to attract the young, the creative, the socially engaged, that advice is doubly important.

What I’d like to know, especially if you’re a suburbanite, is where is your third place? Where do you regularly go to hang out, read a book, see friends, or just escape home and work responsibilities? What makes a place your third space? I look forward to what you have to say.

-Deborah Moulton


Currently there are "11 comments" on this Article:

  1. Cheryl says:

    When I lived in Maryland Heights, I used to drive to the St. Louis Bread Company in Bridgeton. Some people bring books and just hang out there and drink coffee. There are not many choices. Places like Denny’s don’t really appreciate you staying and taking up a booth once you are done eating.

    Bridgeton’s St. Louis Bread Company used to have some tables outside, but you were just sitting next to and looking out at a sea of parking and very few people used these outdoor tables. The restaurant is located in a strip mall anchored by a Kohl’s. A huge parking lot with a rim of commercial establishments.

    Libraries are not a good option for those looking for the late night or Sunday morning third place. And I am pretty sure St. Louis Bread Company closes fairly early most evenings.

  2. Michael says:

    Whenever I’m in St. Louis I go to Meshuggah Cafe in the Loop. It is the best coffee in town–Patrick Liberto knows what he’s doing when it comes to a cup of coffee. The mix of bohemian Loopsters, Wash U. students, and professors make it very conducive to casual talking, book reading, crossword puzzling, and my favorite, people watching. When you go don’t feel bad if it seems like everybody in there knows each other. They want to know you, too.

  3. Adam says:

    ^ i concur re meshuggah – best cup of “coffee” (more of an americano with chicory, i believe) in STL. my other favorite is mokabees, but more for the veg-friendly menu, people watching, and pretty scenery than the coffee.

  4. Kevin McGuire says:

    I am a little lost for input on this subject. The idea of a “third place” is foreign to me. It seems contrary to the post, but my home is my third place. When I want to relax, I go home. When I want to interact, I invite friends and family over. When I want to get away from everything all I want to do is be at home. I’ve never understood while people go out to relax. Places like coffee houses are such a waste of space in my mind.

    The best I can come up with the fits in with the definition would be a long run or bike ride. They both let a person escape from everything else in life and relax. And actually, both of those things are better far outside the urban setting.

  5. Chris says:

    Coffee Cartel, Majestic, Royale

  6. Jimmy Z says:

    My thinking on what creates a third place is a little different, not so much of a specific place, but more of a “community”. When I moved into the SW city area, I was pretty amazed by my neighbors’ focus on parish, as the defining charcteristic of their lives outside of home and work, more so than ward or neighborhood. I’ve also seen that both one’s high school and one’s suburban community are used as major markers for people living in the county (and beyond). In my Denver days, the neighborhood was the primary third place, and by extension, the restaurants and coffee shops that were a part of it.

    I may be weird, but I don’t have a specific third place – I like to get out and meet at a wide range of places, with the people I care about. The place is secondary – it’s the people that create the “community” that make it both special and important, and with the ability for all of us to communicate and coordinate in real time, having that one place to meet seems to be becoming less and less important . . .

  7. CarondeletNinja says:

    Strip club.

  8. Cheryl says:

    The author of the concept of third places, Ray Oldenburg, in “The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community”, published ten years ago, argues that you actually need physical places away from home and work that you can go to and see familiar faces to have a good community.

    Where I grew up, the town square was important. Teenagers hung out there to meet friends. The square had an important business district that my mother went to frequently. My grandmother would ride along on our Saturday morning shopping trips. She would stay in the car as it was parked on the square and just watch people walk by and she enjoyed this excursion. As a kid, I used to think this had to be pretty boring, but now I see how few options she had back then for a third place to just get out of her house.

    I can’t imagine my father being happy drinking coffee in a coffee shop. He would spend a lot of time at auction houses and estate sales and garage sales looking for specific valuable things he could fix up and resell. He knew most of the regulars at the auctions. However, this is another casualty of the internet. Today he would be buying and selling on ebay, and maybe he would be sitting in a coffee shop searching ebay.

  9. equals42 says:

    Macklind Ave Deli in Southampton is a local hangout for a lot of people. Especially in the warmer months with the outdoor seating.

  10. angie says:

    I’m with Kevin: it never occurred to me that I “needed” a third place. My home (specifically the garden) is where I long to be. I run into a lot of neighbors when doing yard work or walking (lots of people walk their dogs around the ‘hood), and when I feel like being with others I invite someone over or go out to dinner with friends. My husband and I love to go to estate sales, but hanging out in a coffee shop or a town square just doesn’t have any appeal, except on rare occasion (and that’s only if we invite friends to go out with us!).

    Many of us who live in the suburbs do so for a reason. The thought of living in a house a mere few feet away from the neighboring one makes me claustrophobic! Yes, I have to drive to get to anywhere and the suburb I live in as a whole isn’t really a “community,” but when we bought our house that was a conscious trade-off, and I love the results. In return I got a mid-century modern house that I love, a huge yard, wonderful neighbors, and lots of peace and quiet. To me, it seems to be about what an individual deems to be high quality-of-life, not necessarily about universal “needs”.

  11. I guess I'm on the 2nd place.


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