Third Place Commons: The Heart of Community

by Anne Stadler on September 16, 2011

Tagged as: Gifts / Association / Raising Children / Local Economy / Food

I live in Lake Forest Park—a town of about 12,000 people on the very northern edge of Seattle, Washington. That we are a town at all is an accident.  Lake Forest Park began as a real estate development located close enough to Seattle that its developers could picture it as an idyllic place in nature for city dwellers to renew spirits jaded by city life. In 1915, Ole Hanson’s Company offered Lake Forest Park –with “running trout streams, cool crystal springs, pure water, beautiful firs, cedars, dogwoods, maples…” as the answer to “the wasted legacies of Eastern cities.”

Fifty-five years later, shortly after we settled in Lake Forest Park, the Commissioners of King County gave a developer the right to build a mall on a lovely piece of wetlands with a creek flowing through it, where local children loved to play.  Citizens hastened to create the town of Lake Forest Park to prevent further unwanted development, but the wetlands was ruined.  The creek disappeared under the mall parking lot. Lake Forest Park was on its way to being a “wasted legacy!”

Our town center, the mall, was a dreary place.  It never lived up to its potential--until 1998 when Ron Sher leased space in the Lake Forest Park Town Centre. He opened Third Place Books to which was attached a large commons space with a stage and five locally owned cafes.  The commons’ furniture was a jumble of long wooden library tables, small tables that would seat four or six people, and a few lovely wood tables made from old growth stumps.  He was inspired by sociologist Ray Oldenberg’s observation that humans need three places:  their home, their work place and a common public space where they can be with others.

An unusual partnership got together to make the Commons a real community place.

The Commons, originally conceived as an adjunct to the business of Third Place Books, is run by an unusual partnership. Citizens, non-profits, other mall businesses and local government all got together with Third Place Books to make the Commons a real community place.  A three-legged partnership includes businesses, government and citizen groups who all work together in the non-profit Friends of Third Place Commons.

Picture a sizeable common space, under an atrium that lets in natural light.  It is ringed with five cafes, and next to a bookstore.  People talk and eat around a motley assortment of tables. Some work at laptop computers.  Two middle schoolers play chess on a floor chess board with large chess pieces. A four-year-old pushes his train around a small track on the table while waiting for Mom to bring food.  Seniors play Mah Jong at several tables.  A book club is discussing their latest book at another. Up at the stage, sound is being adjusted for a flute player, a guitarist and a drummer who will be playing sometime during the next half hour. That’s pretty typical of Third Place Commons.

My family and I can walk to Third Place Commons for a staggering variety of offerings from community and near-by groups.  And our community is enriched by the fact that people from all over the area come to the Commons to enjoy its free amenities. Every Friday night at “Magic: The Gathering” a group of high school age people take over the Stadler Room at the back of the Commons.  Music and performing arts include offerings from Lake Forest Park Elementary School students, a community band, Northwest Ballet School, Shoreline Community College Jazz Ensemble, and many more.  Community partners have collaborated in offerings as diverse as a Gardening Fair, a Care Conversation on Intercultural Communication; grandparent support and education; Parent/Caregiver/Child playgroups; Teen Book Club: Pizza and books; Healthcare Fairs, Transportation Fairs, Playback Theater telling the stories of audience members and an LFP History Project!  Last year more than 900 formal events happened at the Commons!  That abundance is a tangible manifestation of the vision we created the day we first opened Third Place Commons.

From May through mid-October, we buy fresh local food at the Friends-sponsored Sunday Farmers Market.  The Farmer’s Market attracts people from all economic circumstances through its offering of market dollars and other financial support. 

AND, day and night, I meet people at Third Place for work and/or coffee, bump into them for conversation and news, listen to an author read from a new book or sit with my latte and read a weekly newspaper!

For many years I felt my town was only a suburb, with real “life” happening in Seattle. Two factors have changed my experience of Lake Forest Park.  One is the existence of Third Place Commons in the heart of our local economic and political life.  The other is the spirit of “Yes!” coming from Friends of Third Place Commons.  That “Yes!” invites the gift exchange that is the root meaning of the word “community”!  That “Yes!” creates the civic culture that sustains community. Instead of being a property owner in an accidental suburb of Seattle, thanks to Third Place Commons, I am now a member of a community in Lake Forest Park, Washington!

Home page photo: "... --- ...