Photo of a '50s diner. – Third Place Evolution – Board & Vellum

Evolution of the Third Place

In my last post, I discussed a variety of features and conditions that, when combined in just the right way, can create the unique atmosphere of Third Places. With Board & Vellum’s Third Places-focused Night School event coming up next week, let’s dig deeper into the concept.

Third Places are about more than coffee, food and Wi-Fi. Let’s face it, you can get a cup of coffee just about anywhere. For people to want to spend their afternoon in a place and return week after week, Third Places need to provide a unique experience that sets them apart.

There are two qualities that make a Third Place truly special that aren’t often highlighted: authenticity and community, and they go hand in hand. They make the difference between an average watering hole with internet, and a place where special things happen.

Authenticity is the quality that is most often overlooked. People don’t like to feel they are being “tricked” into feeling welcomed or being relaxed. It isn’t enough to just stick some old photos on the wall, add a few curious light fixtures above, and call it a day. A potential visitor doesn’t want to feel like he or she is on a Hollywood set that was just made up to be distracting or flashy. After all, designing for a theme is often far less genuine than a nondescript space with little character. To understand what authenticity really means for a Third Place, we need to go back to a time when Third Places were a new concept, and in a way, much more unconventional than they are today.

Our first stop in this history might just surprise you: Feudal China.

'Tea Party' by by Wen Zhengming – Third Place Evolution – Board & Vellum

Credit: 'Tea Party' by Wen Zhengming, National Palace Museum, Taipei

That’s right, the earliest Third Places were tea houses that popped up during the Jin Dynasty (265-316 AD). While, of course, we know very little about the very first of them, we do know that the tea house was a place in ancient Chinese communities where it was considered a status symbol to be able to spend money frivolously on tea, and be seen in public doing it. They evolved to become a meeting place where local celebrations, business meetings, and friendly rendezvous were held daily. They became an instrumental fixture in the nucleus of provincial towns and cities throughout Chinese history. Even from the very beginning, a sense of community is what Third Places have always been built around.

In the West, the evolution of Third Places, and their identity have gone through several fits and starts. Most of the elements of the traditional western “neighborhood” were invented at least in part, during the 1950s.

Photo of a '50s diner. – Third Place Evolution – Board & Vellum

Credit: Seattle Municipal Archives

The postwar economic boom gave birth to the local diner, the town library, the bowling hall, and the modern hair salon, just to name a few. Many of these places have qualities of a Third Place, but don’t at all resemble the coffee shops of today. There was work, and there was home, and perhaps for the first time in history, most Americans had an automobile commute. This would be the economic shift that would in a way, create the need for the modern Third Place.

Now for the sake of expediency, let’s fast forward, and I mean a LOT, all the way to the 1990s!

Central Perk, of Friends fame. – Third Place Evolution – Board & Vellum

Central Perk, of 'Friends' fame. Credit: NBCUniversal

Yes, the decade that brought us the most recognizable Third Place in popular culture: Central Perk, the coffee shop featured on NBC’s Friends that was filled with multicolored couches, and so much brown that you would think it was going out of style. (It was.) The reality is that in the ’90s, Third Places were finally evolving out of bowling alleys, hair salons, and fire stations in an era before (gasp!) Wi-Fi. In the ’90s, the internet was changing the way we interacted with others. The coffee house culture of the ’90s was a counteraction to the fact that we were being pulled further apart by longer commutes and days spent in front of a computer screen instead of other people. We were looking for somewhere to be with others and catch up about our day in an era of dissociation from one another. Of course, the creation of Wi-Fi-enabled devices were just around the corner, and it would change things yet again. In a way, wireless internet divorced a sense of a community from our Third Places, as we collectively put our earbuds in and heads down.

How does a modern Third Place contribute to a community when most people show up, open their laptop, and disconnect? Instead of turning away those on laptops, or looking from those looking for a quick charge on their phone, Third Places should instead look to attract members of the community that wish to find a place that reflects their town and their values. Especially here in Seattle, every community has its own distinct personality and we are drawn to them because of their quirks and idiosyncrasies. Third Places should celebrate these qualities. A state of mind based on hiring locally, and making sure local groups know they are welcome to hold small events in the space will set a space apart from the rest in a big way, with the one thing that coffee shop chains can’t fake. This can be achieved in part by thinking holistically about layout, color and décor while prioritizing sensitivity to those living closest to the space (your neighbors!). Like the Chinese tea house or even Central Perk, Third Places are about neighborhood first. Everything else is secondary — even the tea and coffee.

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