Thursday, January 30, 2014

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Fighting a McDonald’s in Queens for the Right to Sit. And Sit. And Sit.

(PHOTO: Some seniors spend hours at a McDonald’s in Flushing. Workers say they drive away business. Group members say they should not be rushed.) 
Shortly after New Year’s Day, Man Hyung Lee, 77, was nursing a coffee in his usual seat in a narrow booth at a McDonald’s in Flushing, Queens, when two police officers stepped into the fluorescent light of the restaurant.

Mr. Lee said the officers had been called because he and his friends — a revolving group who shuffle into the McDonald’s on the corner of Parsons and Northern Boulevards on walkers, or with canes, in wheelchairs or with infirm steps, as early as 5 a.m. and often linger until well after dark — had, as they seem to do every day, long overstayed their welcome.
“They ordered us out,” Mr. Lee said from his seat in the same McDonald’s booth a week after the incident, beneath a sign that said customers have 20 minutes to finish their food. (He had already been there two hours.) “So I left,” he said.
“Then I walked around the block and came right back again.”
For the past several months, a number of elderly Korean patrons and this McDonald’s they frequent have been battling over the benches inside. The restaurant says the people who colonize the seats on a daily basis are quashing business, taking up tables for hours while splitting a small packet of French fries ($1.39); the group say they are customers and entitled to take their time. A lot of time.
“Do you think you can drink a large coffee within 20 minutes?” David Choi, 77, said. “No, it’s impossible.”
And though they have treated the corner restaurant as their own personal meeting place for more than five years, they say, the situation has escalated in recent months. The police said there had been four 911 calls since November requesting the removal of the entrenched older patrons. Officers have stopped in as frequently as three times a day while on patrol, according to the patrons, who sidle away only to boomerang right back. Medium cups of coffee ($1.09 each) have been spilled; harsh words have been exchanged. And still — proud, defiant and stuck in their ways — they file in each morning, staging a de facto sit-in amid the McNuggets.
“Large group — males, females — refusing to get up and leave,” read the police summary of one 911 call placed on Jan. 3 at 2:30 p.m. “The group passed a lot of sit-down time. Refusing to let other customers sit.”
Neither a Burger King nor another McDonald’s, both within a few blocks on Northern Boulevard, has the same allure.
Workers at the restaurant say they are exasperated.
“It’s a McDonald’s,” said Martha Anderson, the general manager, “not a senior center.” She said she called the police after the group refused to budge and other customers asked for refunds because there was nowhere to sit.
After multiple requests for comment, a spokeswoman for McDonald’s said the company would address the issue, but as of Tuesday evening it had not done so.
The police in the 109th Precinct, which serves the area, say that calls to resolve to disputes at businesses are routine, though the disruptions are more often caused by unruly teenagers than by septuagenarians.
The Flushing McDonald’s looks like any other. Few among the crowd there on a recent Saturday said they even liked the food. “We prefer our own Korean food,” said Hoick Choi, 76, a pastor at New Power Presbyterian Church, who comes about once a week. Many come after filling up on a free lunch at a nearby senior center.
Some say it is convenience that draws them from the solitude of their nearby homes to spend the day sitting there in the Big Mac-scented air. Many are widowed, or like Jee Woong Lim, 81, who arrived in America two years ago from Seoul, say they are in need of company. They are almost without exception nattily dressed, in suits or dress slacks, brightly colored ties or sweaters, fedoras and well-shined shoes.
Yet there seem to be no shortage of facilities that cater to the elderly in the neighborhood. Civic centers dot the blocks, featuring parlors for baduk, an Asian board game, and classes in subjects from calisthenics to English. Mr. Lee, who comes to the McDonald’s from Bayside, passes several senior centers en route. One is a Korean Community Service center in Flushing, which recently changed a room in the basement into a cafe with 25-cent coffee after its president, Kwang S. Kim, got word of the McDonald’s standoff.
No one has come.
“I think I have to go to McDonald’s and ask why they’re there,” Mr. Kim said.
Outside the McDonald’s on Saturday, Sang Yong Park, 76, and his friend, Il Ho Park, 76, tried to explain what drew them there. They come every single day to gossip, chat about politics back home and in their adopted land, hauling themselves up from the banquettes with their canes to step outside for short cigarillo breaks. And they could not say why they keep coming back — after a short walk around the block to blow off steam — every time the officers remove them. They said they had each been ousted three times so far.
The two men, however, knew what they would do next time. Sang Yong Park said he would not budge, but his friend said he would dutifully obey any police order, just as he always has. “I will just listen to them,” he said. “But I will come back inside after they leave.”


The Food May Be Fast, but These Customers Won’t Be Rushed

With its low coffee prices, plentiful tables and available bathrooms, McDonald's restaurants all over the country, and even all over the world, have been adopted by a cost-conscious set as a coffeehouse for the people, a sort of everyman’s Starbucks.
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.

But patrons have also brought the mores of cafe culture, where often a single purchase is permission to camp out with a laptop. Increasingly, they seem to linger over McCafe Lattes, sometimes spending a lot of time but little money in outlets of this chain, which rose to prominence on a very different business model: food that is always fast. And so restaurant managers and franchise owners are often frustrated by these, their most loyal customers. Such regulars hurt business, some say, and leave little room for other customers. Tensions can sometimes erupt.
(Donna Watkins reading at a McDonald’s on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn on Monday. Michael Appleton for The New York Times)

In the past month, those tensions came to a boil in New York City. When management at a McDonald’s in Flushing, Queens, called the police on a group of older Koreans, prompting outrage at the company’s perceived rudeness, calls for a worldwide boycott and a truce mediated by a local politician, it became a famous case of a struggle that happens daily at McDonald’s outlets in the city and beyond.
Is the customer always right — even the ensconced penny-pincher? The answer seems to be yes among the ones who do the endless sitting.
If Mike Black’s friends are looking for him, they know to check the McDonald’s on Utica Avenue in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, he said. That is where Mr. Black, who is in his 50s, spends hours reading his junk mail.
“I don’t eat fast food,” he said, arguing that his one coffee entitled him to all the leisure time he needed. “I just come here to hang out and deal with my mail.”
A few miles away at another McDonald’s, a fedora-wearing crew holds court daily. “Old-timers, we have been here for years; we’re kids who grew up in the neighborhood,” said Jerry Walters, 70, who was sitting with two friends. On the tables there was nary a coffee, but there was a Budweiser secreted in a paper bag. “We’re accustomed to being here.”
McDonald’s is not alone in navigating this tricky territory. Last year, a group of deaf patrons sued Starbucks after a store on Astor Place in Lower Manhattan forbade their meet-up group to convene there, complaining they did not buy enough coffee. Spending the day nursing a latte is behavior reinforced by franchises like Starbucks and others that seem to actively cultivate it, offering free Wi-Fi that encourages customers to park themselves and their laptops for hours.
There is a social benefit to such spots, some experts said.
“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.’ ”
At some of New York City’s 235 McDonald’s outlets, customers say they have adopted the fast-food franchise as a cafe for a less affluent crowd.
“We’re pleased many of our customers view us as a comfortable place to spend time,” Lisa McComb, a spokeswoman for the company, said in an email, citing free Wi-Fi and areas for children to play as part of the appeal.
But the leisurely cafe culture and the business plan behind fast food are in opposition. Although signs hang in many McDonald’s stores instructing customers to spend half an hour or less at the tables, Ms. McComb said there was no national policy about discouraging longtime sitting. “The individual franchisees do what they feel is best for their community businesses,” she said. “In the case of Flushing, that franchisee welcomed those guests for years, and it was only when other customers felt they were no longer welcome that he attempted to adjust the visit time with the customers.”
McDonald’s has even marketed explicitly to the older crowd, most memorably in a television commercial broadcast in 2010, in which a couple of elderly gentlemen who have a standing breakfast date swoon like teenagers when a lovely gray-haired woman starts showing up.
One afternoon last week, Vincent Diehel, 39, sat at his usual table in a McDonald’s near St. Marks Place in Manhattan, scribbling spontaneous bop prosody and then rapping violent lyrics aloud. He was back even though police officers had asked him to vacate after hours of sitting the weekend before, he said.
“I wouldn’t leave; I refused to move,” said Mr. Diehel, who said he had fallen on hard times and saw McDonald’s as a refuge where he could gather his thoughts. He felt being kicked out was unfair. “I wasn’t ordering no food, no soda, no coffee, no beverages nor any of that,” he said. “That’s probably the reason why.”
Police involvement, however, is the exception. For the most part, longtime sitters said they were left alone.
A McDonald’s in Flatbush, Brooklyn, benignly hosts a group of older West Indian women and their shopping carts every afternoon, said Okera Correia, 30, a stagehand and frequent customer. “After a while they become invisible, other than the zone around them that nobody wants to sit in,” he said. “They become fixtures there.”
Sango Pak, who was back at the Flushing McDonald’s a week after the uproar there, said convening at McDonald’s staved off sadness. “You feel lonely and bored when you are home,” he said. “Here you talk with these friends.”
In a McDonald’s near Astor Place, a sign explained that customers were entitled to just 20 minutes of sitting time.
But Raymos Martinez, an artist, sat tucked into a dog-eared paperback of historical fiction, and said the anonymity of the place held some appeal. “McDonald’s, it’s more like a bus stop. Nobody notices you.”
Or maybe they do. On the other side of the restaurant, in her uniform cap with the Golden Arches, Samantha Reyes, 39, swept discarded burger wrappers off the floor. She refuses to kick out those who seem to find refuge in her McDonald’s.
“For myself, I could be in the same situation,” she said. “Tomorrow, it could be me.”
A version of this article appears in print on January 28, 2014, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: The Food May Be Fast, but These Customers Won’t Be Rushed. 


The Urban Home Away From Home
Lessons From McDonald’s Clash With Older Koreans
JAN. 28, 2014
(Picture windows, lively traffic and easy access for the elderly: the McDonald’s at Northern and Parsons Boulevards in Queens. Damon Winter/The New York Times)

Critic’s Notebook
But why that McDonald’s?
The kerfuffle started when word spread that the police were repeatedly evicting elderly Korean patrons from a McDonald’s in Queens. The Koreans have been milking their stays over $1.09 coffees, violating the restaurant’s 20-minute dining limit. The news made headlines as far away as Seoul. Last week, Ron Kim, a New York State assemblyman, brokered a détente: The restaurant promised not to call the police if the Koreans made room during crowded peak hours.
Still, the question remains. The McDonald’s at issue occupies the corner of Parsons and Northern Boulevards, in Flushing. A Burger King is two blocks away. There are scores of fast-food outlets, bakeries and cafes near Main Street, a half-mile away.
So, in the vein of the urban sociologist William H. Whyte, who helped design better cities by watching how people use spaces, I spent some time in Flushing. What I found reinforced basic lessons about architecture, street life and aging neighborhoods at a time when New York’s population of residents 60 and older is rising.
(A basement space at this community center in Flushing, Queens, is not attractive to many older Koreans. Damon Winter/The New York Times)

For starters, there were common sense lessons about money and cars. Older city dwellers on tight budgets who don’t own automobiles or no longer drive want inexpensive meeting places within walking distance of their homes. The elderly Koreans at McDonald’s, with one exception, all told me that they live within two blocks of the restaurant.
They don’t use the local senior center, they said, because it’s in a church a mile and a half away. (Never mind that it’s in a church basement.) “There’s a van that will take us there,” Kun Pae Yim, 86, one of the McDonald’s regulars, told me. “We’re grateful for the offer. But we are not schoolchildren or government workers. We want to see our friends when we choose.”
So independence is a factor. It’s a big part of why anyone lives in the city.
At the same time, people don’t want to be alone. So they find a sense of belonging in what they think of as their neighborhood, which tends to shrink as they age. The Flushing branch library, free and welcoming, the busiest in New York, is always packed with young and old people, but it’s almost a mile away. A park closer by has benches where some of the regulars meet when the weather is good, but outdoors is not an option in winter or high summer, when McDonald’s has air-conditioning.
Step into the McDonald’s on Main Street, whose layout is one of those glum shoe boxes with the counter in the back, and on a recent Saturday, you could find a clutch of elderly Chinese women nursing a single coffee, cheerfully occupying a nook near the entrance. It’s an area that accommodates eight or so, set apart by a low divider: the equivalent of courtside seating in terms of watching the comings and goings, but slightly separate from the main dining room, with a view onto the street through the front window. Bathrooms are on the second floor, a major deterrent for older people. I watched an elderly man descend the stairs like Mallory from Everest, clinging to the handrail for dear life.
Across downtown Flushing, managers at eateries with restrooms have had the most problems with lingering elderly patrons. Not long ago, on Union Street, a branch of Tous les Jours, a South Korean chain of French-style bakeries, opened, replacing another bakery, but with fewer seats and without a toilet for customers.
(A McDonald’s on Main Street is patronized mainly by customers of Chinese origin. Damon Winter/The New York Times)

In any case, most of those places are too far and foreign for the McDonald’s gang. Even the Burger King, only two blocks away, is remote if you walk with a cane. A few of the regulars at McDonald’s told me that they had frequented a different Korean bakery, a block away, but that it was replaced a couple of years ago by a Chinese-American-owned clothing store, the harbinger of changing times.
Therein lies a further lesson. The neighborhood’s center of gravity has shifted. As the Chinese population in downtown Flushing has grown, younger, more affluent Koreans have moved eastward toward Bayside, leaving behind an older generation of Koreans. Absent a senior center within walking distance, McDonald’s has become, by default, their home away from home. Its architecture offers big picture windows with views onto a major intersection. A seating area near the front door is set apart, half-obscured from the restaurant’s counter staff, with an extra-long banquette, ideal for large groups, people watching and privacy: the urban trifecta. McDonald’s is a ready-made NORC.
The official name is Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities. These include various midcentury housing projects (like Co-op City in the Bronx or Penn South in Manhattan) that have evolved serendipitously over the decades into homes well suited for the elderly people who have aged in them. Despite itself, and the many disgruntled patrons who find nothing charming about people they consider space hogs, McDonald’s is the NORC that has bound together the elderly Koreans. Most of them didn’t know one another until they visited the restaurant. They were drawn there by proximity and price, and they have stayed for the companionship.
“It’s how we keep track of each other now,” Mr. Yim told me. “Everybody checks in at McDonald’s at least once a day, so we know they’re O.K.”
People check in from far away, too. Byung Uk Cho, 84, who moved to the neighborhood from New Jersey three years ago and stops into the restaurant two or three times a day, said that a friend called from Seoul after hearing about the evictions last week. “We became famous around the world,” he said, “but, ultimately, it wasn’t a conflict between a big corporation and weak seniors. It was a community issue.”
And that’s the answer to the original question.
McDonald’s the corporation serves billions and billions. But the hamburger joint at Parsons and Northern Boulevards is theirs.
Old McDonald’s

THERE’S an old Italian saying, “A tavola non si invecchia,” which means: At the table, you don’t grow old. All of us, of whatever age, need to socialize in public places to feel connected and alive.
That sense of shared conviviality was notably absent recently when police officers removed loiterers, many of them elderly Korean-Americans, from a McDonald’s restaurant in Queens. The slew of comments that followed a report of the dispute were unsympathetic to those who whiled away their hours there.
One New York Times reader commented, “It is only in the inner city that McDonald’s and Starbucks are the gathering places for the unwashed, elderly, incompetent and infirm. I suppose this is the price for being a city dweller. These people ruin everything!” Others offered proposals to “solve” the problem by making the seating uncomfortable or removing it altogether, suing the elderly customers or playing blaring rap music to drive them away.
Older patrons may test the limits of public dawdling, but this phenomenon — call it loitering or community building — is essential for the survival of many people 65 and older. According to the last census, seniors constitute 12 percent of New York City’s population. Many of them are single, sometimes far from family, and have lived in their localities for decades, their entire lives even. For the past four years, I have studied how neighborhood public places help older Manhattan residents avoid isolation and develop social ties that offer support, ranging from a sympathetic ear to a small emergency loan.
Like the teenagers who linger over sticky tabletops at Burger King and McDonald’s, these older people have reached a time when their lives do not revolve around work and family. In the absence of those, these public places can anchor routines and provide a sense of structure and belonging.
A Manhattan bakery I observed had served as a de facto senior center for decades. The owner allowed customers to linger; many stopped in more than once a day. The bakery hummed with conversation: It felt more like a social club than a business, with a cup of coffee being the modest price of admission.
Yet the elderly are often now hindered by the loss of neighborhood places that have closed because of gentrification and rising retail rents. When that West Side bakery was shuttered, its patrons were forced to regroup in other neighborhood locales, including a nearby McDonald’s.
For retirees on fixed incomes who may have difficulty walking more than a few blocks, McDonald’s restaurants remain among the most democratic, freely accessible spaces. Much of the appeal lies in the fact that, as an elderly patron said to me, “you can sit all day and nobody bothers you.” At the branch I observed, the tolerance for older New Yorkers also extended to the homeless, people who appeared mentally unstable and teenagers who congregated after school — even when they occasionally flung ice cubes at one another.
An afternoon at McDonald’s opens up a world of people-watching opportunities. One elderly regular I observed sat an entire day and greeted a changing cast of passers-by, acquaintances and friends — a welcome alternative to sitting alone in her apartment with worsening dementia.
Ray Oldenburg, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of West Florida, calls these gathering spots “third places,” in contrast to the institutions of work and family that organize “first” and “second” places. He sees bookstores, cafes and fast food joints as necessary yet endangered meeting points that foster community, often among diverse people. The Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson likens public settings such as Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia to a “cosmopolitan canopy,” where people act with civility and converse with others to whom they might never otherwise speak.
The care-taking performed by such places extends to all kinds of groups. A professor of sociology at Princeton, Mitchell Duneier, has found a Chicago cafeteria that supports older working-class African-American men in this way. I have interviewed people who tell me they don’t like senior centers because “they’re depressing”; in these cafes, they can form emotional attachments with a wider mix of people.
Centers offer vital services, but McDonald’s offers an alternative that doesn’t segregate people from intergenerational contact. “I hate old people,” one 89-year-old man told me.
We should praise companies that allow loitering and devise public-private partnerships that benefit both older adults and business owners: I can imagine tax breaks for franchises that serve a high proportion of older adults and discounts to encourage patronage at off-peak hours. And we could replicate the “Café Plus” model of the Chicago nonprofit group Mather LifeWays in 30 American cities. These attractive coffee shops not only offer older customers who dislike traditional senior centers a 75-cent bottomless cup of coffee, but also welcome customers of all ages.
The Queens dispute has been settled, for now, by a compromise that allows the elderly Korean-American customers to linger, provided they vacate during the lunchtime rush. Battles over public space are as old as the city itself, but we have an opportunity to reimagine overlooked resources like McDonald’s as new generations of older people find themselves needing places to hang out.
About the author: Stacy Torres is a doctoral candidate in sociology at New York University.


Hitches in Compromise at a McDonald’s


An agreement limiting the number of hours a group of older Korean patrons can linger at a McDonald’s in Flushing, Queens, is two days old. On Tuesday, some patrons disregarded the limits. Robert Stolarik for The New York Times

Maybe it was the snow. Or a lack of communication.

For whatever reason, the compromise between a McDonald’s and a group of older Korean patrons — limiting the hours that the group can linger at the restaurant — seemed to have some loose ends on Tuesday, two days after the agreement was reached.

The compromise, brokered by Assemblyman Ron Kim, called for patrons to limit their loitering to less than an hour from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the McDonald’s at the corner of Northern and Parsons Boulevards.

“They agreed to a compromise, to have more compassion to the business,” Mr. Kim said.
But at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, the two elderly Korean patrons who sat in the restaurant continued to do so. One stayed until 12:15 p.m., the other until 4 p.m.; both left of their own volition. 

Though a security guard in a neon green jacket swept the restaurant several times before 3 p.m., he asked no one to leave. About 10 older Korean customers came and went as they pleased all day, none staying less than an hour, and most sitting for several.

“They don’t care — they don’t want to stay home watching TV and going to sleep, they want to drink coffee at McDonald’s and that’s it,” said Il Jong Paek, 46, who is friends with the two customers who violated the time limits. He sat with them for more than three hours on Tuesday afternoon.

The peculiar attraction that the Korean patrons had to that McDonald’s — two other fast-food restaurants nearby do not share the same allure — drew the attention of the police, who would be called to occasionally roust them from the restaurant. When the police’s involvement became known, several Korean community leaders urged a boycott of the McDonald’s.

Mr. Kim said he gave his phone number to McDonald’s managers and will send staff members over to mediate any future conflicts.

He said he had signs printed in Korean, Mandarin and English. They will be delivered to the McDonald’s and hung in a few days, he said. Two employees who identified themselves as managers said they knew of no changes in seating time policy.

Anthony Sharkey, the security guard, said he had been told Tuesday morning by the owner, Jack Bert, to roust loitering Hispanic patrons who he suspected were day laborers. But Mr. Bert said nothing about elderly Koreans, Mr. Sharkey said.

“They never bother anybody,” Mr. Sharkey said. “They just stay here like they own the spot.”dy,” Mr. Sharkey said. “They just stay here like they own the spot.”

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