The recent closure of the King and Dufferin McDonald's brought on a lot of feelings for the neighborhood. Some people were surprised to hear me waxing nostalgic about a) a McDonald's that had a reputation for arguably being the slowest and nastiest in the downtown core and b) at a McDonald's closing in general. Now I know that I maybe give off fiercely anti-corporate vibes (jokes on you I looooove corporations) and by no means do I want to defend a mega corporation like McDonald’s, problematic for all kinds of reasons, but in this case the situation is much more nuanced and worth thinking about.
In my post I called the McDonald's a community center, and that was in earnest, though a recent Guardian article said this about me: “blasé youth in search of urban grit arrive just in time to become cheekily indignant about displacement.” Ok Guardian sorry I’m not OLD like YOU.
Let me explain that a little bit. Places like McDonald's, Coffee Time and Tim Horton’s are, believe it or not, de facto community centers in many neighborhoods. This isn’t necessarily a good thing, this means we haven’t created better places for some people to go, but it’s true! You only need to walk into one of these fast food places at any time (many are open 24/7) and see groups of people hanging out, nursing coffees, chatting with their neighbors. These people are usually older, they’re sometimes immigrants, often they are people with precarious housing who have nowhere else to go, sometimes they are also groups of teenagers who need a place to hang out. These spaces are, yes, commercially designed, brightly lit, offering not the most gourmet delicacies (though I guess a junior chicken can be a delicacy of sorts) but they are egalitarian in a way that small and local cafes just aren’t.
Now walk into any cute coffee shop in downtown to Toronto, and it's got baristas with cool haircuts, tattoos and sometimes gruff demeanor, local art on the walls, cold pressed juices in the fridge and espresso based beverages. Now look around, who do you see? The mood is often studious, Beach House plays gently through the speakers, young "creatives" are thumping away on their laptops, working on their next screenplay, couples are reading books or skimming through The Paris Review. Whatever conversations are happening are subdued. This too is a community, a community of probably the people reading this newsletter: educated, maybe overly so, looking for a slice of peace and caffeine in a big city. And that is fine, that is good even. But this type of space and this type of business isn’t morally superior to another space that gives another group of people space for their community. And I feel like sometimes we draw those very stark virtue lines.
A hipster coffee shop (yes, I understand has largely lost its meaning but you know what I mean!) is not a place where you would ever encounter 4-5 elderly Korean men shooting the shit for three hours or a homeless person using free WiFi to find shelters or message his family on Facebook. I’m sorry it just isn’t.
Maybe we need to just be honest about the fact that our local, minimally-designed coffee shops and cafes are just not quite as welcoming to everyone in our communities as we think they are. And while being designed with a certain aesthetic and clientele in mind, they perhaps unintentionally exclude large number of people in neighborhoods.
Now this isn't by design, I by no means intend to suggest that the small business owners who hustle to open small coffee shops or restaurants and bars for that matter in our neighborhoods are being intentionally exclusionary. I understand that many of them simply can't afford to offer infinite seating capacity or extremely cheap coffee and food or bathrooms to anyone who walks through the door. I absolutely do not fault them for this. But yet the fact remains. And no, I don’t think every place should be for every person. Of course, some places are more for young people and some for old people, etc etc etc. What I am saying is that perhaps we need to reserve our judgement before conferring some sort of morally superior status to businesses that are small and local JUST because they are small and local.
And not just that, we should also start asking ourselves the question of how we as a society got to a place where a fast food chain serves as a veritable community place for the most vulnerable in our midst. And what happens when those places gone? This isn’t a rhetorical question. What happens when they are gone?