Madison Johnson

I was reluctant to support a corporate chain. But in my neighborhood, it’s one of the only places I could have formed a relationship with someone like Sammy.

Twice a day, Sammy makes two trips from Flushing, Queens, to the Sands Casino in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Sammy, like the many homeless who survive by riding casino buses, makes the four-hour round-trip pilgrimages to and from the Sands to take advantage of the free-play voucher that the casino offers, and that Sammy can resell for a modest profit. Between trips, Sammy spends most of his time in the local Starbucks waiting, reading chapters from the Quran in his native Arabic or watching old Egyptian movies on the cracked screen of his generic Android phone.

Sammy and I first crossed paths seven years ago. I can't recall how we first met, but we have grown close, bonding over our shared Egyptian heritage. For him, the Starbucks on 41st Road and Main Street is more than just a coffee shop that’s a pit stop on the way to work or home; Starbucks is his living room, as it is for many others I have met over the years who have no place else to go.

Rarely has a day gone by over the past eight years that I haven’t spent at least an hour in my local neighborhood Starbucks in downtown Flushing. During the time I spent there writing, reading, or chatting, I inadvertently contributed to the building of a community. Flushing, a predominantly working-class Chinese and Korean neighborhood, is a congested urban labyrinth that is in many respects a self-contained city within a city. One can live in Flushing and almost never need to travel to other neighborhoods. Its crowded streets are lined with dozens of street vendors hawking everything from kitchen wares to fresh blue crabs out of a barrel. Dozens of Chinese supermarkets dot almost every corner, selling a plethora of culinary treasures such as dragon fruit, durian, and softshell turtles in a bag.

Yet, for a community that is bustling with so much life, there is a void of public space. On warm days, it's nearly impossible to walk up the stairs of the Queens Library amidst the dozens of people who jockey for a seat on the steps. Flushing’s sidewalks, which have recently been expanded to accommodate the swelling pedestrian traffic, keep people moving as on a supermarket conveyor belt. With few options for leisurely idling, Starbucks has emerged for some as a de facto town square. It’s where many of the eclectic personalities that shape the community converge. Over the course of several years of frequenting Flushing’s Starbucks, I have come to know quite a few of the regulars, like Sammy.

Dennis, another of the longtime regulars, spends most of his evenings in Starbucks, sipping coffee and reading the New York Post as he waits to board the nightly casino bus to Atlantic City. A kind-hearted, blue-eyed Irishman who bears a striking resemblance to Jack Nicholson, Dennis is ever optimistic with dreams of hitting the big jackpot at the slots. “This is a nice place to come to to unwind and relax before I get on the bus,” he said. “Also, it’s not like that I have that many other options of places around here.”  

Sammy and Dennis spend most days at the Starbucks at 41st and Main. (Amir Khafagy)

I often wonder what would become of people like Sammy and Dennis if this Starbucks didn’t exist. The nearby Burger King recently hired an overzealous security guard that scared many of the regulars away, forcing them to relocate to the Popeyes across the street. At the McDonalds a few blocks away, police are often called on the homeless who fall asleep or stay past the strictly-enforced seating time limit. Not surprisingly, the upscale Queens Crossing food hall, home to a Paris Baguette, has hired a team of security guards to patrol the space and police anyone who dares to use the restroom without a receipt.

The Starbucks we frequent hasn’t taken any of these particular extreme steps, but at least one Philadelphia location earned the company a reputation for heavy enforcement after the highly publicized arrests of two black men in the coffee shop last year. The men, arrested for merely occupying the space without ordering anything, later settled with the coffee chain and the city, and prompted a company-wide training at Starbucks.

I can’t generalize from my own experience in one Flushing location to other parts of the corporate chain. But the incident in Philadelphia prompted me to tell my own Starbucks story to expand the conversation. What happened in Philadelphia wasn’t only about race; it was also about the politics of space. It's unfortunate that the privatization of the commons means a corporation like Starbucks becomes one of the only options for not only a third place, but for many, a first and second place.

After the incident in Philadelphia, Starbucks pledged to be more welcoming and said: "any person who enters our spaces, including patios, cafes and restrooms, whether they make a purchase, is considered a customer." But Starbucks employees say they find it challenging to maintain customer service standards and deal with the complexities of the homeless crisis, according to a recent audit. “In each of my listening sessions, partners shared how difficult it is to achieve this goal in communities that are deeply affected by addiction, mental illness, or homelessness,” wrote former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who assisted with the study, measuring the progress of the company’s diversity and inclusion efforts. “These conversations highlighted a powerful tension between Starbucks’ efforts to create a welcoming third place on the one hand, and the realities of life in our most vulnerable communities on the other.”

In my Flushing Starbucks, we have noticed that the facility has made some changes that seem designed to deter extended visits: The tables have gotten smaller. The chairs have become less comfortable. Sometimes the music volume is so loud it’s hard to speak. And even in the winter, the air conditioning was blasted so high you’d think you were sitting in a meat locker. To some, these policies resemble the defensive design architecture that cities utilize to deter homeless populations from public space without being overtly unwelcoming.

“What’s interesting about Starbucks is they changed their policy in response to that racist act a year ago, and because of that have given up some of that ability to exclude,” said Don Mitchell, a geographer and the author of The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space. “So, in my view, it’s quite similar to what city governments have done: You cannot formally exclude members of the public from public space, but you can certainly make it very unwelcoming to them. And we see Starbucks is discovering the same solutions that managers of other public spaces are discovering.”

Through a press representative, Starbucks denies that it designed its stores to deter long-term seating. The representative, Bailey Adkins, did acknowledge the difficulty of maintaining an open-door policy, but insists that the company is making every effort to accommodate everyone in its stores. “Our partners love to provide a warm and welcoming environment where everyone feels valued and respected, and with that comes an expectation that everyone behaves in a manner that promotes a sense of community,” said Adkins.

Many of the people I have met in Starbucks share little in terms of age, race, class, or sexual orientation, but Starbucks has allowed for cross-class contact that probably wouldn’t exist otherwise. Because of our shared experience, we have developed a stubborn sense of ownership over the space. Last year, when Starbucks closed all its stores early to conduct racial sensitivity trainings, I went straight home after work for the first time in a long time. It was strange, but I felt like I was displaced from my home. As I grudgingly learned that day, despite my reluctance to support a huge corporate chain, this spot had slowly evolved from a coffee shop to a social center in my life, a place where community can not only grow but flourish if given the chance.

About two months ago, I noticed that Sammy hadn't been around the Starbucks for a few days. I asked around and nobody seemed to have seen him either. Another day went by and on my way to Starbucks I saw Sammy limping slowly, painfully attempting to cross an intersection before the traffic light turned green. I raced to his side and helped him cross the street. When I asked why he was limping, he rolled up his pants and showed me his pulsating and swollen knee. Stubbornly refusing my efforts at first to get him to an emergency room, he finally relented. A few hours later, while he lay in a hospital bed waiting on the doctor, Sammy leaned over to thank me in a mix of Arabic and English for treating him like a father should treat a son.

“I have no one in this country. You are my family,” he told me. Emotional, I held his hand and told him all would be alright. And it was. The next day he was discharged and he was back to his old self. When we see each other we never talk about that night at the hospital, but I often think about it. I think about how we never would have met if not for a place like Starbucks. Like it or not, at least in our neighborhood, Starbucks has become one of the only places a relationship like could germinate.

This piece is part of our series, "Finding Community." We want to hear your stories. Have you found space in your city to meet people you might not otherwise encounter? Is there something that binds your community, including the most vulnerable? What in these communities has delighted, dismayed, and transformed you? Send your idea to pitches@citylab.com.

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