In the days before air conditioning, easy indoor home entertainment, and automatic garage door openers, neighborhoods connected to each other on America’s front porches and back yards. They relaxed and talked, sometimes for hours, with a drink, a cigarette, or a plate of food from the grill.
Now, we’re living in a time when nearly everyone drives out of their garages in the morning and back in at night. During the week they might not see the people they live next to at all. If they do, it’s probably from behind windshield glass.
In this environment, parks, coffee shops, restaurants, and outdoor shopping spaces are infusing neighborhoods with vitality.
THE VALUE OF NEIGHBORHOOD COMMUNITY SPOTS
The benefits of these alternate gathering spots have been formally recognized since the late 1980s by sociologist Ray Oldenburg. He called them third places, a label that distinguishes them from the first and second place locations of home and work. Third places are comfortable, easy to access locations where people freely share food and drink, ideas, a joke, or the details of their day. Third place locations have regulars. They’re lighthearted, curious, and accepting. Oldenburg knew third places bring a host of positive impacts to communities. In a 2014 New York Times article, he listed several success stories including one about a failed shopping center. He explained that the blighted property was transformed into a “highly successful community center with ethnic restaurants, entertainment every night, a bookstore, and a chess alley.” He said that once the new center was established, “nearby property values shot up.”
Where are the community hubs in BOCO ? Obvious ones may come to mind first: farmers’ markets, Boulder Creek, Coal Creek Trail, and certain bars and restaurants. To some, barbershops, park fountains, and even a burger joint like the Sink are third places too.
But what about the ones that aren’t so obvious? The ones that are just coming into their own?
We’ve sought out some of our area’s emerging community and neighborhood gathering places. These locations aren’t always what or where you’d expect them to be.
What they have in common is that recently, sometimes even as a result of pandemic-related challenges, they’ve become neighborhood places that support human connections.
COMMUNITY HUBS IN THE PANDEMIC
Though the difficult months of 2020 are behind us, the pandemic’s impacts linger. We need third places more than ever. After all, we’ve all spent a lot of time in our homes, physically interacting only with those in our immediate bubble. There are only so many Zoom happy hours and work meetings that we can be part of. We need to stay safe, but while online venues can be their own third spaces, they’re not a substitute for being together in the same physical location. At the same time, even if pandemic-related restrictions hang around for a while yet, there are ways to responsibly enjoy most of the places on our list. Our list includes places that have outdoor access and strong ventilation, venues that take precautions seriously to keep customers and communities healthy for the long term.
Niwot Tavern grappled with the same pandemic-related restrictions as other bars and restaurants. Their solution to this problem was to set up an outdoor spot for musicians to play at a social distance, with nearby tables where diners linger over takeout food and to-go alcoholic beverages. Before long, Niwot residents would stop by for performances. Some have become regulars. It doesn’t hurt that the music is always quality and sometimes loud enough to be heard blocks away. Occasionally, performances become part of a larger event in the Cottonwood Square shopping center where Niwot Tavern is located. This winter, with the cold weather, Niwot Tavern co-owner and Manager Tara Kpogoh-Narh plans to keep a keen eye on weekly weather forecasts so she can book music sessions as often as possible. “Whenever we get some warm weather, we’ll just call a musician and ask them to play.” She’ll also provide access to hot drinks and plenty of heaters under their open-air tent.
Coloradoans love to bond while they work out. Bike riders of all ages and levels can get out together around Erie, on the community’s Singletrack riding area. The flat, easy-to-manage track offers a chance for an outdoor workout with spectacular views. One of the easiest ways to access it is at the entrance by the intersection of county roads 5 and 6. There’s a parking lot there if you’ve chosen to drive your bike in. The trails are marked by difficulty level, just as ski runs are, and there are suggested paths depending on your desired distance. While you’re out there you may also get to know the friendly, equally dedicated faces and bike styles of other riders. Conversations may start with a wave and ultimately evolve into connections between people who share the same two-wheeled-focused passions.
EAST SIMPSON COFFEE COMPANY
When you walk into East Simpson Coffee Company, it feels as if the owners’ passion for fostering community connections goes beyond the products they provide. It’s in the conversations with friendly baristas, on the shelves that feature art and ceramics for sale, and on the table at the side of the front of the shop that, in December, started offering one employee’s collection of vinyl for sale.
This is a place where lingering is welcomed, and plenty of people plugin if they want to take their work out of the office. Scheduled live music encourages customers to hang around, and there are lots of open-air dining with heaters and ventilated spaces. The shop’s menu encourages lingering and heartier offerings are available from beloved food trucks that regulars crave. There is also a limited number of alcoholic beverages available. Mimosas in the morning, wine, and local beer if that is what you’re looking for.
There’s nothing quite like bonding with another person over learning something new. Bookstores have earned their reputation as community gathering spots, and one of the most beloved in Boulder County is the Boulder Book Store.
During the pandemic, the store’s function as a gathering spot is fairly limited. As with other retail establishments, it’s better to enter with your mask on, curtail your browsing, and quickly purchase what you come in for. However, once it’s safe, there may not be a better place to linger among other curious individuals with a mind to learn about a new topic.
While Boulder Bookstore is a great example of a strong third place, it’s not the only one. Longmont’s Barbed Wire Books, Louisville’s Little Horse Books and Vintage, and Niwot’s Inkberry Books are also gathering places for their communities.
CRESTVIEW PARK | BOULDER
Sometimes families need a place where kids can get outside, and parents can take a welcomed break with the chance of finding someone to join them in an adult conversation. Think of groups of moms or dads chatting over strollers.
There are a lot of possibilities for this throughout Boulder County, but one of our favorites is Crestview Park. Located near Crestview Elementary School in Boulder, it’s easy to get to by car, bus, or bike. It also has more to keep people occupied than just its recently revamped playground. There are bike and walking paths, open areas, and even a nature sanctuary designed to help kids understand wildlife’s value in urban areas.
THE GREAT BARK DOG PARK / ROMERO’S K9 CLUB
Dog parks can become the classic third place – one that’s easy to get to, inexpensive, and has its share of regulars.
We all love our pets. Sometimes, people can come together over keeping our pets happy and healthy. That’s part of the appeal of dog parks. You never know who you’ll meet when your dog chooses another four-legged friend to run with. Over time, dog parks can become the classic third place – one that’s easy to get to, inexpensive, and has its share of regulars. While beautiful dog parks can be found peppered throughout Boulder County, one of our favorites is The Great Bark Dog Park. That’s because it has one thing that energetic dogs need: lots of room to run. There are also fenced-off sectioned areas to separate dogs if needed, some agility items to add interest, and strategically placed options for finding shade that humans need.
If you find a connection with another dog park regular, you may want to take things somewhere you can grab a beverage. It’s Colorado so there’s a beer bar for that: Romero’s K-9 Tap House. Located in an old Sonic restaurant on South Public Road in Lafayette, it has a well-curated tap list, friendly knowledgeable beer tenders, an outdoor place where dogs can play, and plenty of Milk Bones.
SOUTH MAIN STREET LONGMONT
For years, Main Street Longmont was one of the focal points for the community. Now the southern part of the street is breaking out of its industrial past and becoming the place to run into people you know.
In addition to the new South Main Station Apartments, there’s a lot here. Start with the barbecue and street taco restaurants, Santiago’s franchise, or the white tablecloth establishments Tortugas and Sugarbeet. Longmontsters may also run into people they know in the enormous walk-in cooler of The Cheese Importers shop that’s now filling out the former Power and Communications building. Once they’ve bought cheese, they can easily walk it to one of three craft beer establishments, 300 Suns Brewery, Bootstrap Brewing, or Wibby Brewing. This district is fulfilling the hopes of the Longmont Downtown Development Authority (LDDA), who were one of the forces behind its development. Said Director Kimberlee McKee “The LDDA Board took every opportunity to partner on projects that would turn the southern gateway of Downtown Longmont into a place to live, work and play.”
Furthermore, McKee said that she hopes that as bus and rail transit lines establish service, the area will transform into a critical gateway between Metro Denver and Northern Colorado regions.
SOUTH MAIN STREET LONGMONT
The Longmont Downtown Development Authority (LDDA) Board took every opportunity to partner on projects that would turn the southern gateway of Downtown Longmont into a place to live, work and play.
AVANTI FOOD AND BEVERAGE IN BOULDER
Avanti opened in the old Cheesecake Factory space this fall as a collection of innovative restaurants and drinking spots inspired by European markets. Once you’ve picked up your order from one of six restaurant concepts, each of which is stationed in a modified shipping container, you can find a place on the open floor plan first floor or in the open air of their rooftop patio and upper-level seating area to enjoy.
While there are plenty of outdoor tables to eat at, safely getting your food could be a challenge as long as COVID-19 case levels stay elevated. Avanti is doing what they can. Spokesperson Abby Hagstrom said “the fourth floor is completely heated and approved by the City as outdoor dining with garage floors that open for maximum air floors. Patios are also heated, and blankets are for sale in case anyone needs extra warmth.”
It’s worth noting that Avanti isn’t the only rooftop dining option and that just about all of them forge community. The Roost in Longmont, The Rio in Boulder, and Piripi in Erie are other rooftop dining spots where the community gathers again and again.
OPEN-AIR STREET DINING
Street-level dining options can be just as community-oriented as what you’d find at rooftop tables. Lots of European countries have known this for decades. Thanks to the pandemic, Americans are now finding out too. (See De La Vaca’s Patio Renaissance: A Europeanization of Colorado Cuisine Scene, June 2020.) Dining outside lets you enjoy an open-air meal while people watching, and sometimes being watched in return. It’s fun, friendly, and social.
In 2020, while indoor dining restrictions increased, the Pearl Street Mall and Old Town areas in Louisville, Erie, and Longmont have all allowed restaurants to apply for outdoor dining permits. There are some efforts to keep these kinds of spaces in place after the effects of the pandemic are back. We hope these efforts pan out.
One thing of note, in Longmont, while it’s great that it gives restaurants extra tables, some of the community effects are lost based on the proximity of traffic to Main street. As cars can get a little close, some diners have to contend with a dose of exhaust with their appetizer, drink, or meal. That’s hard to get around, but it can be a low point in an otherwise great experience.
LEFT HAND BREWING BEER GARDEN
Taprooms have stood the test of time as classic third places in any community they’re in. Along with their delicious beer, their ability to bring people together has been key to their popularity.
In Longmont, Left Hand has relished this role, and taken every opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to the community. In 2020, with a need for more outdoor seating, the brewery has created a beer garden. It is designed to serve as a place for drinkers to settle in with a beer – or several – grab food from their food truck, relax, and talk with others in their party. Comfy chairs spaced in socially distant groups keep the atmosphere safe and the conversation flowing.
ERIE’S NEW OUTDOOR ICE RINK
This past winter, the Town of Erie and local events business The Recess Factory established an ice rink in an unused area of Old Town. It’s just around the corner from the Post Office and across from the town’s older baseball fields.
The rink has a big role to play in keeping the community happy and healthy. It allows families the chance to enjoy the fresh air and outdoor activity while serving as a draw to the downtown business environment in a difficult time.
Other towns have more established skating rinks that are also community gathering spots. Check out Louisville’s outdoor rink and WinterSkate program, located on Front Street in Old Town, and Longmont’s Ice Pavilion on 8th Avenue in Roosevelt Park. In addition to being outdoors, all three ice rinks are enacting COVID-19 safety measures that require face coverings and keeps groups small.
EAST BOULDER COMMUNITY PARK
Located next to the East Boulder Community Center, this park has no shortages of well-curated activities or the chance to relax in the grass and soak up some sun and fresh air.
There’s a beautiful kids’ playground and a pond where you can get close to nature and families can take a non-motorized boat onto the water in the summer. If you want to play any number of sports – tennis, volleyball, handball, soccer are available. Oh yeah – and there’s a dinosaur. As we said, there’s no shortage of things to do.
This Lafayette-based cidery has plenty of indoor and outdoor open-air seating with large garage-style doors that open when weather permits, a porch, and acres of surrounding land. With friendly, knowledgeable staff, customers are encouraged to linger over taps of cider variants. There’s also a delicious menu while enjoying elevated views of Stem’s land and the town of Lafayette. At Stem Ciders, it’s the outdoor spaces that offer opportunities for the community to really come together. Beautiful sunset views inspire sharing time together, but connections happen most of all around the open-air fire pit that’s set off from the main building. Gathering with drinks around a fire is a place for locals to enjoy conversation and connect with new people.
BOCO IS FULL OF AMAZING SPACES
Boulder County is packed with amazing neighborhood spaces that are full of life and community and these spaces are as unique as the people who frequent them. Whether a community hub focuses on dogs, drinks, dining, or something else, they’re all spots where people can connect with others in a fun, lighthearted, and very necessary human way.
That’s why you should check them out. You never know what you’ll learn or who you’ll meet but once you go, there’s a good chance you’ll go again. Maybe you’ll even become a regular. It happens.