Creating and proctecting third places in low-income communities. A conversation with May Louie, Neeraj Mehta, Ken Reardon, and Chuck Wolfe.

A “third place” is what planners call somewhere that is neither home nor work, a place where a range of people gather and interact. Much of the importance of third places is the opportunity they create for conversation. And so we decided a conversation about their roles and how community-based organizations and others could strengthen them would be an appropriate way to launch our package of articles on third places.

Taking part in this discussion with Shelterforce editor Miriam Axel-Lute and NHI executive director Harold Simon were May Louie, director of leadership and capacity building at the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative; Neeraj Mehta, director of community-based research at the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the University of Minnesota and a Bush Foundation Leadership Fellow; Ken Reardon, director of the Graduate Program in City and Regional Planning at the University of Memphis; and Chuck Wolfe, a land use attorney in Seattle who is working on a book called Urbanism Without Effort.

Miriam Axel-Lute: In a lower income or disinvested community, are there different kinds of third places? Are they operating differently, and why or why not?

Ken Reardon: I think they’ve taken on a whole new level of importance because of the long-term public and private disinvestment in some of the poorest neighborhoods. There are fewer community facilities, there are school closings, a lot of the neighborhood-oriented retail spaces are much less vibrant. So these remaining community spaces, whether they’re barbershops or a low-cost breakfast restaurant, are among the few gathering spaces that remain. And given the difficulties that these neighborhoods face, having civic conversation about critical policy issues becomes more important. So I think they’ve become more vital in many ways.

Chuck Wolfe: In some of our more culturally diverse neighborhoods, you’re apt to see more spontaneity, where people might take on a space such as Ken has described, or a street or something, and create the spaces themselves without intervention from government or a [nonprofit] or a community organization.

I was in a meeting where someone spoke [about] a festival that neighbors just did on their own, without it being part of the city’s Office of Neighborhoods programmatic sort of street fairs. I remember thinking as a lawyer, “Well, gee, they probably needed some street use permits for that, and they didn’t bother.” And that’s just fine.

The other piece of this is I think that sometimes these types of populations will tend to rely on the commercial third places, like a bookstore or a coffee shop. And when those places close, it can have an impact because they might not have anywhere else to go. When Borders shut down, I actually wrote an article about [how] no matter what you think of “big books,” so to speak, versus small bookstores, when a space like that that’s really used by the community for convening shuts down, [people] might not have anywhere else to go. Maybe [cities] ought to have “no net loss” policies for third spaces, kind of like [they do for] wetlands. If there happens to be a large commercial space that is used that way, it can be all the more sensitive when that operation shuts down, because there’s not necessarily a naturally occurring local business that will step in. Our Borders in downtown Seattle is still empty a year and a half later.

May Louie: People are looking for the places that support their coming together and interacting and meeting other people. I think public markets are a great place: you’re going there to buy something, but you’re [really] going there to see the neighbors and start a casual conversation over “I’ve never seen yellow carrots before.”

Third spaces are where community is at work making itself. What you want is not for government or a consultant, an outside expert, to say, “Well, you know what you need there is this kind of space.” It has to come from the cultures and what’s appropriate in that place, and what people would use.

How do you know what people would use? Well, you create the settings in which people can express that themselves and be the co-creators of what the space might look like.

Very early on in DSNI’s work, there was a very large public park in the neighborhood, and it was the site of a lot of drug dealing. The neighbors around the park, they called the police, nothing happens. Drug dealers leave, they come back. And out of utter frustration, the idea that the neighbors came up with is, “Let’s build a giant fence around the entire park so that nobody can get in and out, and they can’t sell drugs there.”

So, OK, take away this resource from the community because it’s being used negatively? What we proposed was that we fill the park with positive activities so that the drug dealing wouldn’t have a place. And that’s what we did. We worked with community partners. We brought in children’s programs. And over time, as the community was using it more, the police backed us in this attempt to move the drug dealing out. They had a cruiser there any time that they knew we were organizing children’s activities. Over time, the city refurbished the entire park. There’s a Little League field. There’s new play equipment. There’s a small basketball court. When the space itself looks like somebody cares about it, then more people care about it, right? It was a signal about this being for the children of the neighborhood. And we’re going to keep it clean. We’re going to care about it, and people use it.

Miriam Axel-Lute: Do you have examples of assumptions by outsiders about what sorts of third spaces would work for a community and why that wasn’t the case?

May Louie: I will tell you a case where we, in our planning process, had done something that didn’t work. In a portion of the neighborhood half of the land was vacant because of arson fires, [and] people dumped garbage on top of the rubble from the burnt houses. So we did a land use process for this particular area, which became our community land trust. There were two large pieces of land that we designated for small community centers in the middle of the new housing. And after the housing was built, the new families that lived in the houses, they said, “You’re going to put a community center there? That doesn’t belong.” And of course, they were right. And so, we had the land re-designated for open space, because these are interior residential streets, and you don’t want the basketball game letting out at 11:00 at night with families that are trying to put their kids to bed.

Ken Reardon: I think the planning and design professions have to proceed with great humility and care in their efforts to support changes in the physical environment to preserve and advance these kinds of things.

We have [in South Memphis] the most successful neighborhood-based farmer’s market at the site of an old fish fry restaurant that’s been closed for years. It’s on the corner of two very busy streets. Residents understood that if they made lots of improvements, the cost to the merchants would be high, [and] they wouldn’t be able to survive.

So they did something very minimalistic, with just a beautiful children’s mural wrapped around this building, which over 100 kids executed. They waited in line a half-hour to put their name on the side of the building. People told us that we were crazy, that the building would be tagged in a nanosecond. There has never been a mark put on this building.

And nine outside vendors came in, several community garden groups came in. [It’s a] vibrant, exciting space, 400 people every Thursday afternoon, a mix of local residents, poor and working class, and then health professionals from area hospitals. And there was this lovely interaction between folks who know a little bit about nutrition and health interacting with the local experts and exchanging recipes.

As a result, a foundation comes forward with $300,000. And all of a sudden the church leaders used to doing brick-and-mortar projects come up with a design that now they need another half a million dollars to do. Meanwhile, all of the grassroots activity tapered off as people expected the grand new building to take the market to the next level.

So there’s an example of very earnest and well-intentioned designers and foundation folks wanting to make something already special even more so, but coming up with a design that now loads onto that community a monthly expense that is way in excess of what the immigrant merchants can afford to pay, and may end up killing it.

There’s the notion of introducing principles of good practice from elsewhere, but I prefer looking at what’s already working, and see[ing] how we can modestly build upon that, preserving those very special principles that allowed a very unlikely and dramatic success to have happened in the first place.

Chuck Wolfe: I think there’s an incredible irony when I see clients and policymakers trying to embrace and champion this organic vision, but in order to do that and implement it, they end up reshaping it in an out-of-context way that really inhibits its success.

Miriam Axel-Lute: I was really struck by how many of the examples you have given are private retail spaces rather than technically public spaces. Is it more challenging for a community group to support a third space that’s within a private business, or how does it differ?

Chuck Wolfe: There are well-meaning private businesses or developers who want to be inclusive in allowing for third spaces or a much more diverse fusion business that might have been possible in the past. But you have to have the right mixture of person and community working together, and it doesn’t always come off.

May Louie: We have a small, locally owned market where the owners let us paint a mural on both of their outside walls. The owners are immigrants. They are bilingual. [It] wasn’t that anybody thought “This would be a good community place,” but people were attracted to the store because it’s an immigrant-ethnic store. They are probably one of the few places in the community that will give you credit. People are going there to have their letters translated, to get help with their taxes. Kids will go there to show their report card to the owners.

One of the owners runs a local Cape Verdean radio station, which provides one of the few sources of news and information for that population. She noticed that there were a lot of women in the neighborhood who were really good cooks, [but] have no jobs. She opened up a little eatery [to sell their food].

The community finds the places where they’re welcome, where people care about the quality of life in the community and will be available to them. I think there are a lot of places like that in all of our communities.

Ken Reardon: I teach at a university that does participatory planning with neighborhoods. We were invited into a South Memphis neighborhood, and my graduate assistants kept telling me about this great soul food restaurant, and so I went. And all over the walls were every significant civil rights and African-American arts figure of the last 50 years photographed at this restaurant.

The owner had bought it at auction. It was about ready to close, and he had gone around as the neighborhood lost institutions and picked up the artifacts and brought them in. It’s more than a restaurant. It’s a repository of the extraordinary culture that has kept this neighborhood together.

Most people outside of a very small footprint didn’t know very much about this incredible place and its story. We’re now bringing in lots of students to do work on dozens of projects, and it becomes part of the orientation to that community, because it’s like a civic museum. It has the whole story of a people’s emancipatory struggle on the walls, and also told by this remarkable 70-year-old vendor. And we bring business. We have community meetings there now. [Lots of groups at] the university now regularly use [the restaurant as a] caterer.

[The owner] had this big piece of pretty hideous-looking rustic machinery in the front of his business, and I offered to help him take it away. And he laughed. He said, “You’re not familiar with shoe-making, are you?” and I said no. He said, “This was a shoemaker’s space before I turned it into this restaurant. When we first came from the South, 11 of us, no shoes, my mother went to the shoemaker and asked him if she could rent some shoes until she got some money and could perhaps pay for a pair.”

“And the guy made 11 pairs of shoes on the promise that all the kids would go to school. And it was on this machine. The reason it’s here is that, in my estimation, small businesses are like the stitchers of the community. They’re the ones who can pull together the various threads of people and sense of pride and place and possibilities. We need to remind people on this commercial corridor that that’s part of their role. So the machine stays.”

May Louie: Food is community. Our executive director, John Barros, was part of a group that opened the first local Cape Verdean restaurant. And people hung out there, and still do, and they do music on the weekends; whatever you’re celebrating, you can do it there. When they started the restaurant, I don’t think anybody’s main goal was to make money, because they didn’t, but it was to create that kind of place in the community. It is a commercial enterprise. It is a business. But it plays this whole other role of sharing the culture and creating a gathering place.

Ken Reardon: Here’s another example: A fellow had a candy store in Memphis where all the kids [in the neighborhood] after school would come, and if they did well in school, would show him their report cards, and they would maybe get a little extra treat. Sadly, local rival youth gangs had a conflict over turf near his store, and two young men were shot and killed. And from both sides of this conflict, young men would come into his store, because they had done so as young boys, and lament the situation. And this fellow took it upon himself to reach out to the university and see if there might be some folks who, within the African-American community, would be in touch with powerful healing traditions. And a result of this was a series of Friday night meetings for young men and women who had lost folks close to them, facilitated by African-American social workers and local religious leaders. I think these places have, on multiple levels, important roles to play. We often just don’t see it, [as] outsiders coming in.

Miriam Axel-Lute: Making great spaces can play into gentrification. How do we balance making a great third place, but making it inclusive and preserving equity in the neighborhood?

Neeraj Mehta: The people most equipped to solve our community’s toughest challenges are too often left on the sidelines. They’re not included in deliberation and decision-making and problem solving, and instead we use this sort of paternalistic, “We have the right answer for you, let us import it in.”

I’m really concerned about how the gifts and the strengths and the talents and the wisdom of existing community residents play a part in articulating and shaping revitalization. How do you acknowledge and lift up the culture of a place?

We have a third space in our neighborhood that an organization called The Redeemer Center runs. It’s called the Community Living Room, and it’s literally a living room, with couches, built into a storefront, because that’s what the residents of that community said they wanted, and they program it and they use it. It really represents the ethos and the culture of that place. And they use it to achieve all sorts of things. It’s great to have a space in which people can come together and dialogue and build relationships. We’re always thinking about how do you build communities, too often we say we want to build community without investing in building community.

Third spaces can be an opportunity for people, maybe across culture or differences, to get together to build social capital. Then how do you convert that social capital into the type of efficacy and power that can help bring strength to a community?

May Louie: Recently we were partnered with a couple of other groups to do something called Public Kitchen. This was a set of eight or nine days of intentional events to have food and cooking and eating be this community-building public activity.

The resident artist for that period was a chef, and she’s at the town commons during the farmer’s market, cooking. They cooked on the sidewalk and shared food. They had events at the Dudley greenhouse, including an Extreme Chef cook-off. It was gathering and non-gathering. Some of the events were groups of people who were there for the events, and other ones were people walking by the farmer’s market, grabbing a taste of food, moving on, but talking to each other over food.

Miriam Axel-Lute: In affordable housing, we talk about creating permanently affordable housing so that people don’t get displaced. I wonder if people are starting to think about that for third places.

May Louie: The Food Project farms 2.5 acres of land in the Dudley neighborhood. The land is city-owned. Both we and the Food Project have asked the city to convey the land to the community land trust so that it’s not subject to real estate pressures, or a different city administration [that] decides to balance the budget by selling off all the land to the highest bidder. We want to stabilize the use of that land for urban agriculture as long as that is the will of this community. And the way we can do it is the same way we preserve affordability in housing, through the use of a community land trust.

Neeraj Mehta: We have a Starbucks in our community where the Somali community gathers. Every time you go there, it’s 90 percent Somali community members. In St. Paul, there’s a historically African-American coffee shop gathering place where the issues of the day are being communicated. There’s all sorts of research that shows as our cities become more diverse, we kind of hunker down into communities of sameness. Diversity has all sorts of power to it, yet it’s hard to capture and it’s hard to bring people together across differences. How do we bring the strengths and the gifts and the different experiences and interpretations and ideas of diverse groups of people together? I think using third spaces is a great way to do that, something that feels not-mine, not-yours, but ours.

May Louie: [Third places should be] integrated intentionally, proactively, into a whole community planning process.

Ken Reardon: Encourage people within their local community to identify places that already function this way.

I wonder if third spaces for children need to be different than [those for] adults. I can imagine having some privacy and some protection from the meddling of adults wouldn’t be a bad thing if you were a child. We say we’re very concerned about kids, but we also have accepted so many stereotypes, particularly of young kids of color, that we are really frightened of this segment of our population. And in many ways [we are] eliminating all kinds of spaces for these kids to gather. Where does that leave them?

Harold Simon: So what are some of the ingredients that need to be in place to allow places like this to sprout?

Neeraj Mehta: If I’m a community-based organization, the entire ethos of my work [should be] sprinkled with being in relationship with people in our community; they have a say in a structural way. How do we look for and acknowledge the naturally occurring ways in which people are gathering, if that’s in a public space or a private place, and wonder with them, “If that is exactly what you need, how do we preserve it? Or is there a next iteration? And how do we support that next iteration? What can we do ourselves and what can we do with a little bit of help, and what can we do with a lot of help?”

But really starting with this idea that there are bright spots in our community. We shouldn’t start with what’s broken and how do we fix it, but what’s working and how do we do more of it.

And then, elevate the value of these kinds of spaces so that they’re seen as intimately and explicitly important to what a healthy and vibrant community is and has. No community should be without these kinds of spaces. Therefore, when we think about planning or revitalization efforts or development, we’re saying, “Where are they?”, because it’s that important.

May Louie: The creation of these spaces needs [to be] locally owned. People are part of figuring it out. People are part of making it real, and it’s theirs. That’s probably the best ingredient for sustainability, because what’s created belongs there because people want it.

Ken Reardon: These are important resources in communities, and I think we could do a better job lifting them up and talking about why they matter. They’re sort of the public houses of our century, and they’ve never been more important. At a time where we’re all electronically hooked up but maybe less and less actually connected, these spaces are really precious.

Also give some recognition to a group of people who’ve probably had to work hard at creating and maintaining them—washing them down in the morning and getting new cushions for the lawn chairs, or whatever they have to do to keep the space inviting to people to use it.

Neeraj Mehta: It’s easy to see physical development. We can count units. We can see a shiny building go up. But if part of what happens in third spaces is building community and building social capital, how do you paint pictures for people so that they can see? I love the idea of awards and lifting it up so that people can really see what it looks like and feels like.

This piece is reprinted from Shelterforce, a publication of the National Housing Institute,