• P. J. Strand & M. Kopell

Where We Gather – Missing Our“Third Places”

The COVID-19 shelter-in-place protocols are keeping us apart.

Soccer and baseball fields lie empty, as do picnic tables and playgrounds, beaches and trails. Restaurants and coffee shops are in-and-out or delivery operations. Barber shops and hair salons are closed. The doors of churches, synagogues, and mosques are locked.

And library buildings are quiet. Not even the sounds of storytellers, or community classes, or people asking the librarians for information disturb their emptiness.

Last week Malka caught up with Derek Wolfgram, one of our Civity partners and Library Director in Redwood City, California. Derek sees libraries as places for creating community, places where everyone is welcome and where everyone belongs. Derek walks the talk as a community leader – working to make his community stronger and more inclusive. He and his colleague Jenny Barnes have developed Human Library events that empower human “readers” to connect with human “books” who are different from them, who they might ordinarily view as Other. The libraries also offer Social Service Office Hours to assist people in connecting with help they need in weathering challenging times.

According to sociologist Ray Oldenburg, libraries – along with athletic fields and parks and other places where people hang out and meet up – are the lifeblood of communities. He calls them “third places,” places that lie between the “first” and “second” places of home and work. In third places, people from different neighborhoods, different racial and ethnic backgrounds, and different jobs play, relax, shop, worship, or celebrate in the same physical space.

We might think of these third places as the “living room of society at large.”

As much of the nation shelters in place in response to COVID-19, the third places open to us are limited: grocery, drug, and hardware stores; neighborhood sidewalks. And when we do venture into those places, we float past each other, keeping our physical distance and often separated by masks, gloves, or plastic shields.

For many of us, when we thought about these third places before COVID-19, we tended to focus on the books or movies we wanted to check out or the soccer or baseball game we or our kids were playing.We planned out the food we were bringing to the picnic, we enjoyed the waves and sand at the beach, and we appreciated the spring flowers and budding trees along the trail. We selected carefully from the menu and sighed over our special coffee. We were happy (or unhappy) with a particular haircut or style. We were inspired by the music or prayer at a service. We were energized by the buzz or the music at a gathering place.

Less-noticed were the casual greetings, the impromptu chats with others we might encounter – others whose paths just happened to intersect with ours.

And yet those informal conversations, those gossamer-thin threads of relationship, spin the web of community.

The social networks that make up that web are characterized by both bonding and bridging relationships. Bonding relationships connect us to those we live and work with, the people we see every day, the people we know well and who know us. These ties are strong and robust –multi-ply cords woven of many strands of interaction over time.These strong, bonding links to the people we cherish and befriend create intimacy and purpose. They keep us rooted.

Bridging relationships, in contrast, are thin and perhaps as slender as a single ply of thread. These interactions connect us to people we see casually or perhaps meet only once or twice. Often, they are with people who are different from us in where they are socially or culturally situated. These relatively weak ties are often less important to us: We invest less time and energy in them, and they may come and go more easily in our lives.

But it is these bridging relationships, these weak ties, that transform isolated pockets of separated social groups into the textured fabric of a community.

The weak ties of bridging relationships are as essential to community well-being as the strong ties of bonding relationships are essential to individual well-being. And because weak ties are essential to community well-being, they are essential to individual well-being too.

We know this – viscerally.

In this time of COVID-19, we are hungry for those third places where threads of community are spun and where the fabric of community is woven.

We are hungry for libraries, baseball fields and basketball courts, yoga studios and sidewalk cafes, and flea markets and museums.

We are hungry not only for the books, movies, games, practices, meals, exhibits, and more that we do in these third places. We are hungry for the taken-for-granted experience of being in the variegated web of community and of doing our part to spin that web.

We are hungry for civity, and COVID-19 has called our attention to this hunger.

The Redwood City Library’s Derek Wolfgram and his team are responding.

They have created the COVID-19 Community Memory Project, inviting Redwood City residents to share their pandemic experiences online. The library is distributing education kits to support kids at home with busy parents who are trying to make ends meet. And Derek and his team are brainstorming about how they might teach classes and host events like the Human Library online.

Libraries as online third places are no substitute for libraries as in-person third places. And yet Derek sees a “both-and” opportunity unfolding: Online third places might allow some people who may not be able to show up in person to show up virtually.

Here’s how Derek describes his “third place” commitment during this time of enforced physical separation:

“We've always cherished the Library's role in the community as a physical gathering place where people from all backgrounds have the opportunity to share learning experiences with each other. In the six weeks our buildings have been closed, while we have deeply missed seeing our community members in person, we have been heartened by the community's enthusiasm for staying connected to us and each other through online events and activities, social media interactions, or even just by calling or emailing for assistance. This crisis has shown the degree to which libraries are so much more than their physical locations, and we are continuing to explore creative and equitable ways to keep cultivating community in a time of physical distancing.”

It turns out that third places, weak ties, and civity flourish even in the face of adversity.

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