On Third Places and Junk Spaces and Butterflying with a Purpose

Kaz Brecher
May 17, 2015 · 8 min read

What am I doing here? Head spinning from an intense week during the penultimate module of the inaugural THNK Class in Vancouver, working on the Future of Capitalism, I fly home through LA and, less than 24 hours later, I find myself sitting in a cab heading into a residential stretch of Kansas City to the Start-Up Village. The taxi driver doesn’t think we can possibly be going to the right place, but there it is — a new way station for entrepreneurs and misfits, hoping to catalyze change in their city, jammed between modest homes, from a re-fabbed bungalow of another era. It’s about as incongruous a sight as the Google Fiber lawn signs sprouting from overgrown gardens in this post-industrial neighborhood.

I sneak into the back of the session and grab a spot on the floor to listen to the discussion in progress. The conversation isn’t dissimilar from the ones I’ll hear play out several times a day during the following week. A mix of accidental business owners, people passionate about their community, civil servants, activists, transplants — all seeking a support group for the thankless effort it takes to create a new American narrative, one that builds opportunity on top of ashes and an understanding that we’re all better off when we’re all better off.

This is just the first stop for me on the current BLK SHP bus tour operation. Five of the other folks I join have been camping out on the former Barbara Mandrell touring coach between most of the 15 prior stops, from Austin to New Orleans, Baltimore to Ferguson (you can see the entire trip mapped here). But it was easy to relax into the rhythm of happenstance in service of “story foraging” as our anthropologist, Watson Hartsoe, occasionally said. At THNK, where I am on the faculty, and in most design thinking practice, this discipline is known as sensing — tuning into the people and places you encounter without agenda, with a child’s eyes, as you don’t know what you’re looking for until you find it.

You hope for blinding new insights, or unmet needs, or webbing in the ecosystem that didn’t present itself previously. We hope to discover the everyday experiences that fall below the radar of the polarized mainstream media, the tales which inspire and point to more than just a 10x payout but a sustainable, thriving America from coast-to-coast.

I made the Herculean effort to join the group in Kansas City specifically so that I could hear Harold O’Neal, an early member of the BLK SHP and sensational pianist, play in his hometown. And I was not disappointed. Learning a bit about the friendly rivalry of the various jazz haunts, and seeing the deep sense of shared history that musicians have who have watched each other grow up, amplified the experience of Harold’s electric performance. He has a style that moves easily from classical concerto to foot stomping blues, a reflection of broad influences and predilections. And I found myself thinking about how we introduce ourselves on this tour, all but one doing a “born here, family from, but now I live…” dance.

For example, my refrain: I’m from Boston, live in Los Angeles (some of the time), but mostly have been working between Amsterdam, Vancouver, and various American cities for the past few years. Benjamin Riddle, however, has had feet firmly planted in Greenville, South Carolina — the black sheep of this peripatetic collection of BLK SHP. His passion for, commitment to, and sense of place is something we meet over and over on the road. And it wasn’t until we were enjoying a meal with yet another group of amazingly inspiring change-makers in Omaha that something clicked for me about the tension between leaving a place, coming back, or just plain jumping between them. America needs all of this if we’re going to begin to flourish again.

Part of the BLK SHP tour on the Barbara Mandrell glitter coach.

We heard similar stories of people who had left their hometowns to build a life elsewhere, only to return with new appreciation for what they could contribute. Instead of looking to a withering local economy to give them a job or a purpose, they realized that they could create those things for themselves and others. Autumn and her coffee shop in Omaha. Aaron and the Guthrie Green in Tulsa. Thomas and the Off Center Theater company in Austin. Several called themselves Boomerangers, but they’re more than that.

The great Bart Giamatti, former president of Yale University and the Commissioner of Baseball, wrote a beautiful series of essays on the American pastime. In one of my favorite of his musings, he investigates the profound significance of running around the bases. You take a chance, swing, and if you’re lucky, you get to go out into the world, pushing yourself further afield, hoping others will help your journey, but eventually returning home. This excerpt from You Can Go Home Again touches on how deeply this concept is rooted in our national identity:

‘’Home’’ is an English word virtually impossible to translate into other tongues. No translation catches the associations, the mixture of memory and longing, the sense of security and autonomy and accessibility, the aroma of inclusiveness, of freedom from wariness, that cling to the word ‘’home’’ and are absent from ‘’house’’ or even ‘’my house.’’ Home is a concept, not a place; it is a state of mind where self-definition starts; it is origins — the mix of time and place and smell and weather wherein one first realizes one is an original, perhaps like others, especially those one loves, but discrete, distinct, not to be copied. Home is where one first learned to be separate and it remains in the mind as the place where reunion, if it ever were to occur, would happen…In America, the cluster of associations around the word, and its compounds, is perhaps more poignant because of the extraordinary mobility of the American people. From the beginning, we have been a nation constantly moving. As I have suggested elsewhere, the concept of home has a particular resonance for a nation of immigrants, all of whom left one home to seek another; the idea of a ‘’homestead’’ established a frontier, the new home beyond the home one left in the East; everyone has a ‘’hometown’’ back there, at least back in time, where stability or at least its image remains alive.

Think on the people you know who go out into the world and come back — back to where they began, but not at all the same after the experience. The role of the cross-pollinator cannot be overstated. As we’re seeing with the collapse of the honey bee population, our ecosystems depend on those who flit about, spreading ideas and resources. Rather than framing us as dilettantes, suffering from ADD or flighty, I want to reframe these critical actors as necessary for any kind of systemic change or progress.

We are social butterflies with a purpose.

Interestingly, many of the most positive and hopeful entrepreneurs we encountered had created third spaces in which collisions can take place. As an unlikely urbanist, I’ve been more and more intrigued by these pockets where gathering happens for one reason but something much more profound occurs. I frequently reference my favorite café in Los Angeles, Paper or Plastik, which dropped roots on a fairly desolate stretch of Pico some years back. It’s run by an eccentric Russian woman with impeccable taste and a passion for real community. There are no laptop weekends, and conversation is valued above all. The openness of the atmosphere has consistently attracted the most diverse clientele I see anywhere in LA — every age, race, socioeconomic standing. And when all are welcome, magic can happen. Something the Downtown Project in Las Vegas is attempting to quantify as the elusive Return on Collisions.

The junk space of the Off Center Theater company in Austin.

In Omaha, we met any number of small business owners and well-funded start-uppers who mentioned Autumn’s coffee shop as the place where they hold meetings, have hatched new schemes, noting it as the preferred stand-in over co-working space. And Thomas at the theater showed us their “junk space” which I found pulled on my heartstrings more than any of their more formal stages. He talked about the importance of these somewhat neglected, unwatched spaces for getting new things started, experimenting, allowing the oxygen a spark needs to get a blaze going. In many ways, that’s what these third places have in common. Whether it was the Mutual Musicians Foundation, the oldest Black union for musicians going strong since 1917, or Lula Jane’s in East Waco, where we woke up to the most unexpected breakfast and a delicious slice of America’s potential, how are we cultivating space for serendipity and re-invention?

The Mutual Musicians Foundation in the early days, in operation since 1917 in Kansas City.

For many of the people we met on the road, re-invention is a matter of necessity. And I found myself growing increasingly uncomfortable with the almost mythic yet slightly exclusionary mantle of the self-proclaimed entrepreneur. After all, entrepreneurship without a choice is merely survival. Too many people frame the luxury of shrugging off a 9-to-7 job as a political statement, worth lauding as the only new noble option for the working man, when in fact many people we met started businesses because they had lost their jobs (like Chris of Artifact Bags).

A view over Omaha from the former Tip-Top Ford factory, now home to architects and artists alike.

The most inspiring successes we saw weren’t reflected in the total dollars of Series A funding raised but rather in the existence against all odds of thriving spaces where people are gathering to plot and plan a shared future — from an incredible architecture firm and creative co-lab in the former Tip-Top Ford factory to the slow fast food of the Kitchen Table. In Austin, facing the impending demolition of his theater space, Thomas asked us about the limited ways in which contribution is valued in our society. How are we placing value on creating these third spaces, these watering holes for the informal spread of hope and new ideas? If America is going to find a new narrative, we have to expand our value set to include more than making money, owning a home or a car, or cashing out after an IPO.

So, this is what I’m doing here — carrying stories from the heart of America, sharing tales of hope and successes as well as struggles, planting seeds, and creating connections through listening and asking questions. Instead of toiling in siloes on urban challenges facing most of our cities and towns, we need to intentionally share what’s working and what’s not, become nodes of positive contagion, and channel support into replicating solutions far and wide. I can’t wait to go home…but I’ll be back on the bus again soon enough.

The BLK SHP Collection

We honor the black sheep — creators at the margins who are reinventing themselves, their organizations, and society for a purpose.

Kaz Brecher

Written by

A Curious Catalyst. THNK Faculty. Story matters more than medium, but pick the right one & use the right words, images, & interfaces, the right people hear it.

The BLK SHP Collection

We honor the black sheep — creators at the margins who are reinventing themselves, their organizations, and society for a purpose.