The Magic of Third Spaces, Written From Detroit
I am sitting in a coffee shop and the world is abuzz around me. By now, it's cliche to spend a morning camped out at Great Lakes Coffee - a less than three year old bar and coffee shop in the heart of Detroit's Midtown neighborhood - because it's a well trodden establishment for the city's burgeoning "creative class." But that doesn't make it any less impressive. There are medical students studying in their scrubs, and older men and women conducting meetings in suits. There is a gentleman in a beanie who is wearing a long-sleeved t-shirt with the emblem of a plumber's association. There is a college student in headphones eating Sun Chips. Behind me, the guys who tried to bring the X-games to Detroit and who are launching the ASSEMBLE festival are having a working session. All these people are certainly not a full representation of Detroit's residents, but, it's much more so than most establishments.
This ability to gather, to learn, to work...to dream amongst other dreamers and serendipitously meet them is the magic of the third space.
These semi-public spaces are essential for the development and creation of knowledge, the sharing of ideas and relationships. Third spaces like coffee shops have the openness to bring disparate people into proximity, but have the structure to be focal points of activity. They are respites from the corporate jungle just as they are offices for bootstrapping entrepreneurs and students. They are mixing bowls which mash up different kinds of people with different kinds of ideas - a necessary ingredient for creativity and innovation. Third spaces are community centers, laboratories, and parlors all at the same time. They just happen to serve coffee.
At the same time, these third spaces are not Detroit's savior. There is certainly a carrying capacity for how many third spaces can healthily exist in a city, and they don't create many jobs. They are not accessible to all, either, because not everyone can afford designer coffee or membership fees. But they are a necessary part of a city's social fabric, that creates the right condition for learning, sharing, creativity, and entrepreneurship to occur.
What I hope is that the people sitting in these coffee shops and other third spaces are dreaming about more than just opening other coffee shops and other third spaces. I hope they are thinking about new products and services, philosophies and expressions, businesses and innovations.
And in Detroit, I think we are.