In a society built around cars, is it surprising that McDonald’s might emerge as a consistent gathering place?
For America’s graying cohort, often sectioned off by age at places like senior centers, the dining room of a fast-food restaurant is a godsend. It’s a ready-made community center for intergenerational mingling. The cost of admission is low—the prices beckon those on fixed incomes—and crucially, the distance from home is often short. And that’s just one demographic.
In spite of the plastic seats, the harsh lighting, and in many cities, the semi-enforced time limits for diners, people of all sorts can sit and stay and stay and stay—at birthday parties, first dates, father-daughter breakfasts, Bible-study groups, teen hangs, and Shabbat dinners. Or at supervised visitations and meet-ups for recovering addicts. For those who crave the solace of a place to call home that is not home, a fast-food dining room offers it, with a side of fries…
In the days following the 2014 shooting, the Ferguson McDonald’s had served as a safe harbor for cops on coffee breaks, for reporters needing tables and internet to write and file their dispatches, and for demonstrators escaping clashes with police. “When a protester blasted with tear gas comes moaning through the door,” Matt Pearce of the Los Angeles Times reported at the time, “there are bottles of soothing McDonald’s milk to pour over his or her eyes.” One worker had been a classmate of Michael Brown and knew his regular order: a McChicken, medium fries, medium drink. (Similarly, the Burger King and McDonald’s near New York City’s Zuccotti Park doubled as unexpected safe spaces for the mostly white demonstrators during the months-long Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011 to gather, organize, and snack.)…
Fast-food restaurants are more than just culturally pluralistic social hubs for unremarkable meals, meaningful rituals, and uncommon encounters. And they are more than just community centers of first and last resort. They’re also places where people can set about building connections and performing the work of whatever their interpretation of repairing the world might be.
Does this mean that fast food restaurants are the problem or they are a symptom of major social issues? The last paragraph of the story cannot help but suggest McDonald’s is problematic in many ways yet the rest of the piece suggests it fills a void.
The civic realm is an interesting place for Americans in recent decades. Personal media use on a daily basis keeps going up. Participation in a number of civic groups has declined. Voter turnout has declined. Church attendance has declined for many religious groups. Trust in public institutions is down. The rise of the automobile roughly 100 years ago means many Americans spend time each day alone in their vehicle. Single-family homes allow people to retreat to their private homes (large from a comparative perspective). Political discourse is rarely civil or productive. The best third places in many communities are private operations involving food (think Starbucks, fast food, local restaurants) with the occasional space that can bring people together. Since McDonald’s are cheap, omnipresent, and stable, why can’t they serve as effective third places given the dearth of other options?
If McDonald’s are not a preferred option, it would be interesting to see a movement dedicated to creating non-profit third places for all residents in many communities. Many current options cater to particular groups of people or have particular goals in mind. Offering an attractive and inclusive third place would take quite a bit of work as would reminding people that this is something they would enjoy participating in.