February 8, 2024
By the F.M. Kirby Foundation
Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name. A place where your troubles are all the same.
Yes, this is the theme song of the 1980s sitcom Cheers. But that song’s staying power goes beyond its catchy jingo. Indeed, Norm, Cliff, Kelsey, and the rest of the characters that made up the Boston bar seem to get at something much deeper in human nature: our need for “third places.”
The sociologist Ray Oldenberg is credited with popularizing the concept of “third places” as being vital to the health of our communities and ourselves. These are spaces outside of the home and workplace where people can gather, socialize, meet strangers, and learn from others – all with little or no financial barrier.
Oldenberg cites spaces like pubs, social clubs, barber shops, and coffeehouses as these democratizing places where rank and class are flattened to allow for citizen-to-citizen exchange and community building. Places much like that fictional pub on Beacon Street in Boston.
Walking the streets of our headquarters in Morristown, New Jersey, one can see plenty of “third spaces” that make our Foundation’s headquarters a vibrant place to live and work. Whether it be the Green with its chess boards and fountain, coffee shops lining South Street, or the town library, we are blessed with places where one can encounter neighbor and stranger alike, usually for little more than perhaps the price of a cup of coffee.
At the Kirby Foundation, given our mission to foster strong and healthy communities, we support a number of organizations that act as “third places.”. Our support for organizations like the Madison Area YMCA and the Greater Wyoming Valley Area YMCA offer examples of Oldenberg’s theory. YMCA members engage in conversation with one another while volleying on a pickleball court, gliding on an elliptical, or rolling out a yoga mat. Moreover, YMCAs provide much more than a place for conversation and exercise, offering child care, financial assistance, youth programs, and more.
Libraries are also these “third places,” and while Oldenberg often focuses on urban environments in these studies, libraries hold tremendous power to be “third places” for rural, suburban, and student populations. Whether it be our support for the Kirby Free Library in the hamlet of Salisbury, NY or, on the other end of the spectrum, our support of the James B. Hunt, Jr. Library on the campus of North Carolina State University, we recognize the significance of these places for people to connect with one another and access important resources and information.
One organization we support has taken Oldenberg’s recognition of the power of these spaces for connections and has added an element of literacy. Book Harvest, located in Durham, NC, builds libraries full of children’s books in the kinds of “third places” where families are most likely to gather: laundromats, recreation centers, health clinics, parks, and churches. What’s more, Book Harvest has created its own “third place” with the opening of their “Family Space,” a “playful learning hub where children and their families can freely discover an abundance of books, toys, and manipulatives that spark learning opportunities and cross-generational communication.”
After years of pandemic-driven isolation and political rancor, as we seek ways to repair social bonds and build new connections, “third places” can play a vital role in helping us overcome encounter one another’s humanity again. Let us know on LinkedIn what your favorite “third places” are.