As Cinderella once said, “You don’t know what you got till it’s gone.” I realize it is questionable judgement on my part to start out with a reference to the lyrics of an 80’s hair band but in this instance the phrase seems fitting and now the song is stuck in my head.
Sometime in mid-August I found myself wandering aimlessly around the Portland neighborhood along some industrial buildings on Main Street. I had become accustomed to taking short walks during the day to get away from the destructive habit of sitting in front of a computer for hours on end. I wasn’t in the mood to explore, just needed to move. Typically in this situation I would have walked to McQuixote’s Coffee and Books on Portland Avenue, but since it closed at the end of July that was not an option. I remember thinking, as I trudged along the treeless sidewalk, that some of the luster of the neighborhood had left with my favorite day break destination.
For the past three years I’ve worked out of the University of Louisville’s new-ish Urban Design Studio (UDS) location in the Portland neighborhood. I spent the majority of my working days over the previous eleven years downtown at the former UDS location on 3rd Street. Before that I worked at an advertising agency on Main Street near the Louisville Slugger Museum. All told, I spent close to twenty years working downtown. The alleys and side streets of downtown are imprinted in my memory like no other place I know.
Regardless of the negative attitudes many have towards downtown’s amenities, or lack thereof, I took it for granted that I could walk to so many different places for dining, entertainment, or to just pass the time. I wasn’t prepared for the sudden lack of “third places” when the studio moved to Portland. That was my first hard realization that I may not have appreciated what my surroundings offered.
What is a Third Place? In most people’s lives, their first place is their home, second place is work, and their third place/s are those that people primarily gather to be around other people such as cafes, clubs, bars, churches, libraries, parks, or gyms. Many of these places have a specific purpose, such as selling goods or services, but for the local residents they provide social gathering spots. Quality third places can even be found in the small mom-and-pop neighborhood corner stores, barber shops, salons, and specialty stores.
I remember places like Golden Frets in Carbondale, Illinois, where the shop keeper of the guitar store probably spent just as much time sitting around shooting the breeze with patrons and playing a few licks on whatever instrument they happened to bring through the door, than actually working on or selling guitars. You can pretty quickly identify these neighborhood gems when you walk in and there are extra chairs arranged in a conversational semi-circle near the register. Chuck Rubin’s Photographics on Bardstown Road seemed very much like this. These third places often are special to the locals who find a “second home” with casual acquaintances that become family like in the 80’s TV show Cheers, “where everybody knows your name.”
Unlike home or work, third places are much more dynamic settings where the cast of characters and situations unfold in unforeseen ways and there is the possibility of something memorable happening. Ray Oldenburg, an American urban sociologist framed this idea well in he and Dennis Brissett’s 1982 paper The Third Place, “...an aura of the unexpected surrounds each visit to a third place. This is not to say that the unexpected or unpredictable invariably occurs. However, the feeling that it might occur is a vital part of the experience in the third place. One can never be certain exactly who will be there; can never predict what the chemistry of a particular ‘mix’ of people will create.” (Oldenburg; p274)
The best third places are about experience. Think about a coffee shop. Most people can make a pot of coffee at home fairly easily, even with the cheapest of coffee makers – or none if you’re into Folgers crystals. You go for the connectivity to the neighborhood, the chance encounters with people that spur new ideas, to simply and temporarily unplug from the concerns at home or in the office. Sometimes you even bring the office to the coffee shop, but you are there for the social web they provide.
I looked forward to walking up to McQuixote’s, particularly during the early days of the pandemic when places were slowly opening to a new normal, to get out of the studio for a bit, an opportunity to say hello to Mickey and run into people from the neighborhood who happened to be there. There weren’t many places to walk that offered some sense of social community aside from McQuixote’s and The Table down the street, but I found that those were enough. The closing of the cafe was the second time I realized I’d taken what I had for granted and it was rough.
About a month before McQuixote's closed, a friend and accomplished brewmaster opened the Shippingport Brewery and Sally Forth Tap Room in the neighborhood. The brewery sits along an interesting stretch of Main Street that I rarely saw outside of my windshield on my way to the studio. Though I went to the opening, it was in my mental blind spot for a while because it was across the tracks and off my typical routes (particularly because Main Street is a community-killing one-way street that needs to be converted). Yet, Sally Forth is only about a 10 minute walk though so I’ve started going there for lunch. I’m pretty sure I’ve run into someone I know… besides Amelia, every time that I’ve been there. It is becoming a much needed third place for the neighborhood.
Take stock of your third places. Think for a moment what it would be like if they were not there. For many this is not a hard thought experiment to conduct. The pandemic and global shutdown provided a heavy-handed slap in the face to the notion of needing a place outside home and work (which in some cases became the same thing) for mental sanity and stability. We need to remember that our favorite third places are a critical part of our lives. We need to support the people who create these great spaces and make them memorable experiences.
“When an individual sits down to eat, he knows that he is nourishing his body. When he casually chats with his friends, however, he is rarely, if ever, aware that he is, thereby, keeping in touch with a reality that is always socially constructed and maintained in social interaction.” - Ray Oldenburg (Oldenburg; p280)
I believe the Portland neighborhood has a great comeback story in it, a cheesier person than me might say, “a Cinderella story in the making.” Portland’s has so much unrealized potential with its historic corner stores that could become third place anchors. Phase four of waterfront park is just around the corner. With great places like the late McQuixote’s and now Sally Forth bringing much needed social cohesion and community there is a new shine to the neighborhood.