Third Places

Ever since one particular research assignment in seventh grade, I’ve been fascinated by the concept of the “third place.”

The third place is the middle, neutral, social space between your home and your place of occupation (school for students, the beat for police officers, various play groups and kid-friendly zones for full-time mothers). In Rome, the third place was the piazza, the public square or marketplace. In ancient Israel, it seems to have been the area by the city gates.  In Greece, it was the agora. At one time in Chicago, it was Bughouse Square (that one’s worth a quick google).

This is where ideas are exchanged safely and offered for communal evaluation. Radio host Janet Parshall gets at the idea when she talks about engaging in “the marketplace of ideas.”

Urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg has written extensively on the subject of these “informal public gathering spaces,” so I won’t go any further into depth into their definition.  What I’m interested in is where I can find and enjoy these wonderful gathering places near me.

[One quick caveat: for me, the most natural third place is my church. It’s social, it’s a place where ideas are exchanged, and it fosters the kind of meaningful interaction that (as Oldenburg has said) is critical to democracy. However, strictly speaking, the church is not a place. That being said, if you’re on the Far Northwest Side of Chicago, you need to visit my church. Let me know and I’ll save you a pew.]

So this is why, if you follow my Instagram feed you’ll find it filled to the brim with (typically black and white) portraits of coffee shops, public houses, and other various modern-day neutral gathering spaces. I’m on the hunt for third places.

Zach and Slater had the Max; Jerry and George had Monk’s; Seth and Ryan had the Crab Shack (Yep, that’s an “O.C” reference. You’re welcome.). As for me, I’m still in search of the perfect third place. But here’s a few that I’ve enjoyed over the last few years:

  • Chelios’ Pub & Grill, Aurora (the original home of the Forum (née Bible Guys) weekly discussion group)
  • Two Brothers Roundhouse, Aurora (especially the cafe–good golly that place is fantastic)
  • The Student Center at Grace Pointe Church, Plainfield (I’m a little biased, in that I helped create this space and used to work at the church. But it’s proven to be a really good place to gather, and not just for youths. Grace Pointe really uses the space well in various ways.)
  • Galvin’s Public House, Jefferson Park, Chicago (cozy Irish pub, where I’ll be hosting upcoming “Bible for Skeptics” MeetUps)
  • Trading Post Tobacco & Cigars (I just discovered this place in Downtown (Uptown for purists) Edgebrook. Truly a third place. Bill the owner and a few regulars got me into a spirited conversation within a minute of me walking in.)
  • La Vita Cigars, St. Charles (frequented by Joe Thorn, Jimmy Fowler and the Redeemer Fellowship guys–so you know it’s a solid place)
  • The Skokie Public Library, Skokie (this place is always packed, and with good reason. And they engage the community super well. I’m participating in a panel discussion on human origins there on September 19th. It’s worth it just to go hang out at this library!)
  • Barnes & Noble Cafe, Skokie (home of Ask A Pastor)
  • North Avenue Beach, Lincoln Park, Chicago (jam-packed with volleyballers during the summer months)
  • And finally, just about every Starbucks I’ve ever been to. Some call Starbucks an “evil chain,” but there’s a reason they are popping up in the heart of so many neighborhoods. They understand what it means to be the third place, and they’re dead set on becoming exactly that.

Based on my own brainstorming and a few conversations I’ve had, some other suggestions for third places are:

  • Barbershops/beauty parlors
  • Little league and soccer teams/games
  • Facebook and social media (No. I refuse to count anything that consists ultimately of staring at a screen instead of interacting with in-person humans.)
  • VFWs and social organizations and fraternities (think Rotary, Moose lodges, etc.)
  • Corner stores
  • Public parks

How about you? Do you have a go-to third place–somewhere where you can expect unplanned, no-agenda encounters with friends? Where you can share authentic experiences with people who would ordinarily not necessarily be your friends but you have been brought together in, or perhaps by a common space? Where you can be yourself but also be confident you will go home a better person for your interactions you’ve had there? Let me know.


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