Customers Seeking "Third Places" Give McDonald's a Second Thought

Climate controlled public places where the elderly, cost-conscious and indigent are welcome to spend a few hours are hard to find. Tensions have erupted at McDonald’s restaurants in NYC between customers seeking a refuge and business interests.
January 28, 2014, 12pm PST | Jonathan Nettler | @nettsj
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Thomas Crenshaw

"Behind the Golden Arches, older people seeking company, schoolchildren putting off homework time and homeless people escaping the cold have transformed the banquettes into headquarters for the kind of laid-back socializing once carried out on a park bench or brownstone stoop," observes Sarah Maslin Nir. But restaurant managers and franchise owners aren't too keen on the adoption of their restaurants as "[coffeehouses] for the people." A recent episode at a McDonald’s in Flushing, Queens, which resulted in management calling the police on a group of older Koreans, illustrates what can happen when these interests collide. 

“As long as there have been cities, these are the kind of places people have met in,” said Don Mitchell, a professor of urban geography at Syracuse University and the author of “The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space.” “Whether they have been private property, public property or something in between,” he said, “taking up space is a way to claim a right to be, a right to be visible, to say, ‘We’re part of the city too.’ ”

Sociologists such as Ray Oldenburg argue that "third places" like cafes and coffeehouses are central to local democracy and community vitality. "But the leisurely cafe culture and the business plan behind fast food are in opposition," notes Maslin Nir.

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Published on Monday, January 27, 2014 in The New York Times
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