Washington School and Third Places

Washington School was what first brought my family to the neighborhood where I have lived out the last fifteen years of my life (we lived on Nineteenth Street for the first three). I was in the last kindergarten class at Washington School before it was closed. It seems almost poetic that this week, as I begin my final month in the neighborhood before I leave for Kalamazoo College, the Board of Education has released their new plans to redevelop the building and the property that surrounds it.

Ray Oldenburg, an urban sociologist, coined the term “third place.” He theorized that most people have a number of important physical places in everyday lives. There is the first place (home), the second place (work or school), and the third place (a place that is neither home, nor school or work). The third place is perhaps the most important in the life of a community. Oldenburg wrote that third places “host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work.” Wikipedia uses a barber shop as an example, which seems rather dated, but the idea is clear. A third place is a social equalizer and a linchpin to the community, and, sadly, many people have no third place. In some areas, people try to force third places. Shopping malls were one of the notable attempts at creating a third place in suburbia, but they appear to have failed rather miserably. It seems, almost, that a third place cannot be forced, but rather must take root organically. This is what has happened with Washington School, which I identify as my own third place.

Even after Washington School was closed in 2003, it continued to be a sort of neighborhood gathering place. I have played too many games of Capture the Flag to count at Washington School. I play football there every Thanksgiving (despite my confusion as to the basic rules and objects of the game). I have had water balloon fights with neighbors that I had never previously met. In the area boxed in by the heavy traffic of 9th, 16th, Van Raalte, and River, Washington school is the only public green space, and it shows. On these warm summer evenings of which we have had so many, the field, tennis court, and playground have been well utilized. Even when people are not there, I think that by its mere existence, the Washington School property provides the entire neighborhood a sense of consistency and stability that it needs in a changing city and world. Washington School – despite it’s lack of actual school-ness – is the third place that Oldenburg imagined, and we’re all mighty lucky to have it.


Ian McKnight

WSN Summer Intern

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