Captain Gilbert Knapp was onto something back around 1835 when he created what is now known as Monument Square. That’s when laying out lots for the townsite of what would become Racine. He set aside a public market and gathering space that was initially called Haymarket Square.
Fast forward to a Wednesday evening more than 185 years later, and you’ll see what I mean.
Hundreds of people – young and old alike – were gathered on today’s Monument Square in Downtown Racine for the weekly bags tournament. Beanbags were flying through the air at 13 sets of boards. Folks were chatting, laughing, snacking while drinking beer, soda and water on a sticky July evening. Attached to the Civil War monument, big-screen TVs were tuned in to the pre-game show for the NBA Finals with the Milwaukee Bucks and the Phoenix Suns.
While old Gilbert may have scratched his head in wonderment at what people do for leisure in the 21st century (Tossing beanbags!? Television!?), he surely would have approved of the use of that public area he set aside all those years ago. After all, he COULD have made a lot more money by simply dividing that piece of land into building lots.
But early-day residents like Knapp recognized the value of what today’s sociologists and urban planners refer to as “third places.” Author Ray Oldenburg famously defined third places as the public places where people can gather, put aside the concerns of home and work (their first and second places) and hang out.
In his book, A Good Place to Live: America’s Last Migration, author Terry Pindell persuasively argues that third places contribute to a community’s success in gaining – and retaining – population. “Towns and cities whose social life coalesces around such places rather than the country club and the private home meet the first criterion for people looking for a good place to live today,” he writes.
Monument Square (the name was changed from Haymarket Square when the 61-foot Civil War monument was installed in 1884) truly meets the definition of a “third place.” The public square is a place to meet friends, enjoy a meal and listen to music nearly any time of the year.
Understandably, the urban planners of today try hard to replicate third places. Drexel Town Square in suburban Oak Creek is one example – it includes the public library, village hall and retail space under one roof and a fountain/splash pad and public gathering space outdoors. I suppose that’s all well and good, but these manufactured newcomers just don’t give you a sense of place.
The City of Racine, meanwhile, has had its own third place for nearly two centuries now! Check it out – you’ll find Music on the Monument on Fridays, Saturday Sounds on the Square on Saturdays and a big NBA Finals watching event this Saturday night.
While you’re there. Be thankful for “third places.”