When Your Third Place Does Not Want You: Elderly Entitlement and Fighting the New Old Korean Queens Gang

I’ve been following an ongoing saga in the New York Times concerning a local McDonald’s restaurant in Queens and how elderly Koreans in the neighborhood have taken over the place as their community hub.

This new, “old,” gang doesn’t really buy anything and they stay all day long taking up space and not making any money for the business.  There’s a Senior Citizen Community Center nearby, with van service for those who cannot walk that far, but the retired don’t want to go there because it’s in a Church basement.

The one thing you take away from reading about this ongoing conflict between elder entitlement and the business needs of McDonald’s is that the old people — like the Millennials behind them — believe they have the freedom and the right to sit wherever they want, and linger as long as they wish, with no repercussion whatsoever. Asking them to leave to make room for others is a cultural slap in the face that will not be tolerated.

A peace was negotiated in that the gang of Korean elders would vacate the McDonald’s during the lunch rush hour and return 90 minutes later to resume their daylong sitting of buying nothing.

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 [Naturally Occurring Retirement Center].

I don’t support this sort of squatting in a public place — especially in a busy business like McDonald’s or Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts — in a major urban core like New York City where every hour is rush hour.

It’s frustrating and maddening to be a paying customer and not have a place to sit down and eat or drink because all the tables are taken by people who camp there all day and, oftentimes, never spend a single dime in the place.

That sort of specialized entitlement — “I’m Here, Because I Am” — now developing in all ages, makes me scream in public because that philosophy of living is a punishing way to interact with those around you, because the self is always put forth before the communal needs of those around you.

I always feel grand pressure if I’m in a packed restaurant or business to eat or drink and then get the heck out of the way so the next person in line can have a place to sit. I realize that is dinosaur thinking because, in the universe of today, you only do what you feel like doing and to consider others is a failure of the success of the self.

There’s been a big push for businesses to become the “Third Place.”  The First Place is your home.  The Second Place is where you work.  The Third Place is where you choose to go to relax and have fun.  For many years, Starbucks wanted to be your Third Place, and for over a decade, they won the war for The Third.

Then Starbucks started to bump into customer resentment.  Consumers would enter the establishment, pay a lot of money for a coffee, and have no place to sit because of the all-day squatters.

So Starbucks did a brilliant thing a few years ago and started to redecorate their stores so they were not as comfortable or welcoming to campers.  Soft, cushy, chairs were replaced with hard Church pews.  Fabric and soft light were replaced with harsher metal finishes and brighter lighting.  You could still sit down and eat and drink, but you wouldn’t want to sit all day because the environment didn’t comfort you enough.

I find that subtle switch in the Starbucks philosophy to be incredibly welcoming.  Now Dunkin’ Donuts wants to be your Third Place, but they’re also bumping into the problem McDonald’s and Starbucks before them have learned: There’s no way to become the rightful Third Place without having to deal with selfish regulars who take you up on your offer, drink all your free WiFi, and arrive in the early morning and stay until you close.

How do you tell those you covet — but for only 20 minutes at a time — that it’s time for them to go back home, or that the van to the Senior Center is parked in the street waiting for them to get in and get out?

I’m reminded when I was a graduate student at Columbia University — and Tom’s Restaurant was the hot place to eat because of its associated Seinfeld fame — and Tom’s timed you when you sat down and, if they were busy, the wait staff would cut you off by clearing your plates even if you were still eating.

One night, after they cleared the table without asking us if we had finished or not —  and started wiping down the wood with a filthy dishcloth — I told the waiter we wanted to order dessert, and the guy said, “No dessert.  You go.”

No debate.  No reconsideration.

I understood.

We ate.  Others were waiting.  Get out!

We got it and left and found dessert in another place.