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Group of friends enjoying a late evening meal in a restaurant.

Reconnecting to Our Gathering Places

July 20, 2022
To build diverse and inclusive communities, we must all have access to vibrant ‘third places’ outside of home and work

We all have special places we go to refresh ourselves from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. The theme song from the 1980s situation comedy Cheers reminds us how much we long for a place where,

Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot.

Sometimes you want to go

Where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.

One of the calamities of COVID-19 is that the pandemic cut off many of the connections we have to what are called third places, those informal gathering places that are a welcome escape from home and work.

Third places like the soft-surface trails in Northwest Arkansas re spaces where people can build a sense of understanding of the neighbors who live in their community.

Today, these include commercial and public indoor places like bars, restaurants, cafes, barber shops, beauty salons, museums and libraries as well as outdoor places like trails, bike paths and parks. These friendly hangouts are similar to what H. L. Menken saw in his local tavern, which he called “a hospital asylum from life and its cares.”

At the Walton Family Foundation, we are committed to supporting vibrant, inclusive communities where residents from all backgrounds have access to cultural, economic and recreational opportunities that enrich their lives and create a sense of belonging.

In our Home Region of Northwest Arkansas, there are many dimensions to this commitment. A primary one is our support for developing inclusive shared spaces and experiences for the residents of the region and its many visitors.

These include world-class cultural institutions like TheaterSquared, the Momentary and the Scott Family Amazeum, which work actively to ensure every resident of Northwest Arkansas feels welcome.

Neighborhood organizations are coming together to develop more bustling public spaces – like Railyard Park in Rogers, Arkansas, and Memorial Park in Siloam Springs, Arkansas – intentionally designed to create a sense of belonging and inspire real connections among people from different backgrounds.

From soft-surface mountain bike trails that welcome riders of all skill levels, to sports and cultural events like the Bentonville International Festival and Grit Fest that embrace diversity in all its aspects, these are spaces where people can build a sense of understanding of the neighbors who live in their community.

The International Festival, part of Bentonville’s First Friday lineup of events, celebrates the city’s cultural diversity. The festival is free, open to the public and located in the city’s downtown core, close to neighborhoods, shops and restaurants and other parks.

What are the benefits of these places in enriching the lives of individuals and their communities?

They create an opportunity structure that includes the physical places themselves but also the rituals and activities that the people who visit them perform. Third places create the context that conveys important personal meaning to those who participate — helping to generate a collective identity that strengthens our attachment to our neighborhoods and communities.

Third places inspire voluntary association that connects us to each other in special ways through the free choices we make to be there. They involve an escape from home and work. Third places are typically inclusive, neutral grounds with no formal membership requirements.

Grit Mountain Bike Festival aims to create an environment where riders feel safe to learn and grow (on and off the bike) and be one's whole self with the group.

Finally, third places help us form close friendships and increase our civic involvement. Because they cultivate a sense of belonging and promote connection, they generate what experts call place capital. They are the living rooms of civil society.

COVID-19 limited our contacts with many of these informal, fun places. While around 2 in 3 Americans spent time at third places in 2019, only 1 in 2 did during the pandemic. This is another hidden cost of the pandemic that has hurt Americans’ social health. As we continue to recover from the pandemic, we must include a return to these relaxed and engaging places.

Memorial Park in Siloam Springs, Ark. became a safe outlet for residents seeking time outdoors during the early phases of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I experienced the value of a third place growing up in the Collinwood neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio. It was a mostly Italian-American community where my grandparents owned a third place, the Golden Gate Inn. Everyone knew your name and they were, mostly, glad you came.

The soundtrack of my youth roared from the tavern jukebox, playing rock and roll records or hits from the great American songbook. The cracking sound of spinning pool balls and the ringing sounds from the shuffleboard bowling game added to the din of the place.

Looking back, I realize I had an intuitive sense that the connections people had to third places like the Golden Gate Inn were good for them and good for their neighborhoods.

The Golden Gate Inn was a gathering place – a “joint” as its patrons called it – but not an exclusive one.

There were neighborhood regulars, mostly Italian-Americans – men, women and youngsters – who arrived after dinner to talk while nursing a glass of house Italian wine or a cold beer. There were also factory worker regulars of differing racial and ethnic backgrounds from the nearby manufacturing plants. They included line workers, supervisors, even top line managers. They arrived on their way home from work, ready to talk while nursing the same drinks as the regulars.

Looking back, I realize I had an intuitive sense that the connections people had to third places like the Golden Gate Inn were good for them and good for their neighborhoods. They created sticky friendship networks that glued people together, within our neighborhood and with different neighborhoods that otherwise would not have existed.

Railyard Live is a free summer concert series in Rogers, Ark. featuring a diverse lineup of entertainers.

Third places help us overcome our natural tendencies to form narrow friendship groups by providing us with the benefits that come from interacting with different social networks.

Ryan Streeter, a foundation grantee, has written that “in strong communities, people know they are valued and feel like they have a recognized place in the group.”

“When people feel connected to each other, they not only enjoy the personal satisfaction that comes with belonging and friendship but also are helpful and look out for each other’s welfare,” he adds.

Third places foster the sorts of associations that can help people – particularly young people new to the world of employment – find opportunities that otherwise might have been out of reach.

A report from The Survey Center on American Life found that: “Americans who live in areas packed with neighborhood amenities … tend to report having a more racially and religiously diverse set of friends and acquaintances. Living close to a variety of amenities, such as cafes and parks, [also] increases neighborliness, feelings of safety, social trust, and positive feelings about the community.”

If we are serious about revitalizing our failing social fabric after COVID-19, such places are essential.

While building community, they are also important for fostering opportunity. Experts tell us that third place connections foster bonding and bridging social capital, and they offer connections with others that create trusting and engaging relationships with them.

Bonding social capital is nurtured in like-minded groups. Bridging social capital is nurtured in groups that are mixed racially, demographically and in other ways. As social scientist Xavier de Souza Briggs observes, bonding social capital is for “getting by.” But bridging social capital is for “getting ahead.” In other words, third places foster the sorts of associations that can help people – particularly young people new to the world of employment – find opportunities that otherwise might have been out of reach.

By taking part in ordinary activities like visiting a bar or restaurant or a park or museum or trail, we are doing something important to the health of our neighbors, neighborhoods, communities – and ourselves.

Home Region program officers Meredith Bergstrom and Jeremy Pate contributed to this article.

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