The “third space” is a place that is not work or home where one spends time. It is one of the most simple yet important concepts of our time. Sadly, in a world where we are pushed to be independent, fear others who are different from us and save pennies shopping at impersonal big-box stores rather than local shops, it is an endangered one.
When I learned about a fall semester University of Maine class aimed at finding ways to increase student involvement in downtown Orono, the heart of that community, I was thrilled. What a step in the right direction.
It was very fitting that Orono Community Theater staged a production of “Our Town” in 2012. Much of what makes this Penobscot County town special and vibrant today could have been penned by Thornton Wilder himself.
Let’s start with the downtown business district. The restaurants are convivial spaces where you can linger over a cup of coffee, look at titles from the secondhand bookstore or play a game of chess. The folks who trim your hair, fill your prescription and adjust your bike will greet you by name and be pleased to see you. Every place of commerce is on a human, rather than warehouse, scale. They’re good at providing support for local events.
Intertwined intimately with them are noncommercial spaces. The airy, beautifully illuminated public library offers programs and special events for everyone, from toddlers to senior citizens, and a nicely appointed community room available for groups to use. Next door you have the senior center with its thrift shop, which provides great bargains and raises funds for a number of nonprofits.
Behind it is an organic garden where volunteers learn important skills while growing veggies for low-income seniors. During the growing season, clients cherish the social distributors as much as their gifts. Right across the river is a lovely little park that’s just right for family picnics. Then there’s the Keith Anderson Community Center. Twice a year, Orono Community Theater takes the stage for live productions. The Orono Arts Cafe open mic allows singers, comedians and poets of all ages to shine for an appreciative audience the second Friday of every month.
All entities team up for really special days. There’s the Christmas tree lighting, when people enjoy cookies and hot beverages and children eagerly await Santa. Mill Street closes to traffic for the Orono Festival. People dance to live music. Youngsters enjoy bounce houses, games, and face painting. Neighbors greet one another as they peruse organizations’ booths. Artsapalooza turns a wide range of venues into places for readings, performances and dancing.
One should never take this abundance of third space for granted. The professors designing the class have it right. In the face of outside forces working against solidarity in any form from big chain stores competing for our patronage to gloom and doom media scaring us from public spaces, we must work diligently and creatively to maintain, evolve and market what makes a town like Orono special.
Third space literally can be the heart of a community. Its absence or presence can determine whether a town becomes more than a municipal entity. People dining in places where they meet up with friends and neighbors, shopping at businesses where proprietors and workers know their names, taking advantage of library programs and looking forward to annual events have a sense of belonging. When good things happen they will probably feel pride. When challenges arise they are more likely to take ownership.
Third space brings together people who would not see one another in their relatively homogeneous neighborhoods and workplaces. A fairly well-off mother can see that her low-income counterpart is not a lazy welfare queen. Folks who have lived in Maine all their lives can welcome newcomers from Japan and Rwanda. Parents of children needing public education and senior citizens on fixed incomes can be less adversarial each year during town budget time.
I hope the students who take this class will help Orono thrive and learn skills to bring to the other fine communities in which they settle down, work and raise families.
Julia Emily Hathaway is the vice chair of the Veazie School Committee and a proud mother of three.