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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Third Places in Fort Thomas

I referenced in a recent blog birthday post about Starbucks being one of the only good public gathering spots in Fort Thomas.  Shortly after that post I stumbled upon the concept of 'third places' in a recent article on Soapbox Media in reference to a book entitled Retrofitting Suburbia.

By way of background, wikipedia provides the following definition of third places:
The third place is a term used in the concept of community building to refer to social surroundings separate from the two usual social environments of home and the workplace. In his influential book The Great Good Place, Ray Oldenburg (1989, 1991) argues that third places are important for civil society, democracy, civic engagement, and establishing feelings of a sense of place.

Fort Thomas has a dearth of third places, lets look at each of the traditional areas where third places happen in most communities and Fort Thomas' use of those buildings or institutions:

Churches - Fort Thomas churches are generally only used on Sundays and Wednesday evenings.  Traditional church settings finds parishioners gathering for a service and quickly exiting the facility once the service is over at which point the facility is locked and not used until the next service.  The Highland United Methodist Church with its café open to the High School and surrounding community has worked hard to make it more of a third place but the traditional church building design doesn't lend itself to creating a third place.  Crossroads in Oakley is a great example of a church creating a third place.  They offer free wi-fi, coffee and soda, lots of comfortable gathering places and play areas for moms with busy kids as a way of serving the community.

Offices - The offices that do exist in Fort Thomas are mostly single unit offices such as banks, insurance agencies, or health related that are not only not able to share their space to the community but federal regulations require them to keep strict security.  Has anyone ever tried to find a conference room to rent in Fort Thomas?  It is impossible - the closest opportunity is the Library and they have restrictions on use. 

Library - Provides a good opportunity for moms with small children to engage them in learning but not building the library in the center of town and excluding good common areas limit its ability to serve as a third place.

Parks - Tower Park can serve this purpose when the weather is nice.  Any warm spring or summer day finds large groups of parents and children playing and talking at the playgrounds - but this is not really an option 5 months of the year.  Also the pocket park and clock tower between Miller and Lumley has become that (again only in the summer time).

Schools - Highlands High School on Friday nights in the fall is a third place but otherwise unless you are a student in an activity this is not much of a third place.

Theatres / Museums - this is more appropriate in larger urban areas but some facilities do exist including the Village Players and the amphitheater in Tower Park.  I have written at length about what I think needs to happen with the amphitheater and I hope to see some of those changes with the new facilities.  The Village Players has real potential and I may focus on them in a future post.

Community Center - The YMCA is the closest thing to a community center in Fort Thomas.  Even though membership is required the great thing about the Y is that they will not turn anyone away because of financial limitations.  The biggest problem with the YMCA as a true third place is that they are terribly space constrained.  They have 1 meeting room which can be reserved but large lobbies or gathering places are non-existent in this older, dated building.

City Hall - 2 tiny meeting rooms in addition to the council chambers which are really just not that practical for much of anything.  Again older, dated facilities not built for general gathering and socialization.

Buildings that could become a great third place in Fort Thomas include:
  1. Stables building in Tower Park - the market had a great first couple months but it takes time and continued progressive thinking about how to use the historical building
  2. Nevada building - with the right retail tenant that entire building is big enough to be a third place, lets hope there is enough vision to make that viable
  3. Village Players theater building - location and size make this an attractive building but it needs to find the right use.  The shows are a good start and hosting the Fort Thomas Woman's Club helps but it feels exclusive - the community needs to feel invited for a building or institution to become a real third place.
  4. Mess Hall - only used currently for rented events such as weddings or fund raisers.  How amazing could this building be if it were open to the public from 7am to 9pm with free wi-fi, a café, reservable conference rooms, and outdoor patios.  My recent post on the Northern Kentucky Encyclopedia illustrates its important role in community building in the past as it served as an ice skating rink.
Any other thoughts? I would love to hear your feedback.


  1. Unfortunately, the city missed it's opportunity to create a gathering space at it's most natural location - the current Convenient Mart square. The plan developed by the outside consultant would have created an actual "downtown" area that people would have been naturaly drawn to. I realize the plan called for change too radical for most long-time Ft. Thomas residents, but significant physical change will be necessary to create a third space people actually want to visit. In my opinion, none of the mentioned current possibilites will fit the bill, and will fall short if not accompanied by significant structural change. Planning is everything. I much prefer looking at the pocket parks as opposed to what was there previouisly, but when was the last time you saw anyone acutally hanging out in them?

  2. The Armory is a good third space. Lots of open gym time.

    The bars in town are good too. I've taken my family (and met other families) at 915 and Midway Cafe.

    Oh, and Starbucks is in Newport, not Ft. Thomas.

  3. This community view is well worth thinking about and I agree that Fort Thomas is locked up like a jail cell when it comes to creating a community feeling. We native (I'm 5th generation) Ft. Thomians are used to going elsewhere for community. All the new sidewalks in the world are not going to create a community. Since my expertise is theatre, I can tell you that the ampitheatre will only work in good weather and the Village Players theatre is so small that they don't have to advertise. The long term subscribers have the place sold out years in advance. We had a wonderful movie theatre space that was destroyed for the sake of creating closed business spaces. In the 70's, Cincinnati tore down all it's theatre spaces for the sake of hotel spaces. Greater Cincinnati thinks only about making money. It's not people oriented.

  4. Starbucks, on Grand is in Newport - So you don't even have that.