#WURDoftheDay: Starbucks Shows Us the Dangers of Gentrified & Privatized Public Space

WURD Radio
Apr 18, 2018 · 6 min read

by Charles D. Ellison | WURD — Reality Check | @ellisonreport

Who’s to say what will happen in the wake of Starbucks’ national back-of-the-bus moment. The company’s shares on Wall Street, interestingly, haven’t suffered all that much as investors seem somewhat happy with the way the coffee giant responds. Maybe that will change once the lawsuits are served up and major advocacy movements call, officially, for a boycott. And, really, Philadelphia police are in just as much trouble as the coffee shop since arresting officers had ever opportunity to de-escalate the situation and just didn’t despite common sense. It’s too early to tell how much this has had an impact on revenues or cups bought. Questions linger on that: Black consumers have never, largely, been a big fan of Starbucks. The last known survey on the topic by Pew Research Center showed most African Americans preferring competitor McDonalds over Starbucks — but that was back in 2009 (almost 10 years ago) …

And so, it’s pretty much a white liberal thing to patronize Starbucks. Thus, in many ways, no surprise that two Black men were arrested in one, considering the state of the company’s overall interaction with the national Black populace. Perhaps the hiring of COO Rosalind Brewer in recent years was a recognition of that, a tactical way to reverse that trend and serve up a smiley face of Black appeal as racial tensions rage on.

Starbucks is widely viewed as a mega-gentrifier, particularly in urban Black communities exhausted from tirelessly (and, pretty much helplessly) fighting against that. That partly explains the relationship; it’s not like the coffee seller’s stores are omnipresent in Black neighborhoods like they are in white neighborhoods, despite the fact that more than 20 percent of the Black consumer population buys coffee or espresso-based products, according to the National Coffee Association (that’s about $260 billion of the $1.3 trillion in estimated annual Black buying power). This screen shot of Starbucks locations in what is, technically (by a few percentage points) majority-Black Philadelphia, for example, puts this in visual context …

If you’re familiar with Philly neighborhoods, you can easily see that Starbucks is not concentrating in hoods with high concentrations of Black residents, much less areas where there are low-income, working-class or even middle class Black neighborhoods. Look at the North and South sections of the city, where you have those concentrations. Go West, and they become markedly non-existent once you cross the Schuykill River and go past the clustered mini-city housing 30th Street Station, University of Penn, Drexel University, Penn Medical Center, Children’s Hospital and other notable globally-recognized institutions.

This Zillow take also offers some explanation: Starbucks locations also increase housing prices, thereby serving as a key indicator of gentrification and, ultimately, displacement …

But, beyond the conversation on race, gentrification and the store’s relationship with a certain segment of the population, we’ve been watching this moment unfold and accelerate throughout society for some time now. It’s not so much about the wrongful arrest of two Black men. It’s, on a much larger scale, a worrisome story about the Gorilla Glue-like grip retailers or private companies have on the public space. Our public space is increasingly privatized; there are fewer places to congregate without private overseers using their personal discretion to tell us how to congregate. There are fewer public places to use outside the control of a privately managed scheme. There are, laugh all we want, fewer public bathrooms — but, considering the public hygiene implications, that’s serious.

Some of us had been waiting for a time when, finally, Starbucks’ infamous “bathroom code” would catch up with it. In this recent Philadelphia case, it did when these two Black men asked to use it without making a purchase. But, Black people are not the only ones who’ve had to deal with this. For years, most of us have watched silently as homeless individuals have repeatedly suffered the indignity of unavailable public bathrooms and bathroom codes/tokens created, partly, as a way to deter usage by those without housing. There has been no public outcry about that, despite the fact homeless individuals, across all racial boundaries, are the most vulnerable people in society.

That lack of outcry, and the lack of concern we’ve collectively showed over the domination of the privatized space, has its consequences. The unwillingness to advocate for safe, hygienic public facilities for the homeless shows a larger social distaste for other human beings. When corporations and governments see this, it further offers an opportunity for institutions to mistreat and discriminate against other vulnerable human beings. This promises to get worse: according to the Annual Homeless Assessment Report from Housing and Urban Development data, homelessness in the United States increased between 2016 and 2017 for the first time in seven years. Quite a few of them are unsheltered. As researchers show, homeless discrimination will continue and will rise. It’s a tricky conversation: companies like Starbucks will counter that allowing homeless individuals to openly use their facilities or to stay seated in their locations presents a public health challenge; advocates will counter that it’s not the homeless population’s fault that they’re in that position, maybe large companies like Starbucks could help out. Maybe if governments would invest in resources for the homeless, we wouldn’t have that problem.

In essence, it’s reflective of an overall downward trend in available public spaces. We see that, for example, in the rapid closure of public libraries. These were once plentiful, publicly-owned and publicly-managed spaces in communities; now, vast closure of libraries is contributing to the vacuum of the public space. That’s obviously not just a homeless problem. Closures of public facilities such as recreation centers and libraries also contribute to public safety issues and challenges in vulnerable neighborhoods where crime is a problem.

Persistent poverty and a stubborn long-term unemployed rate (that isn’t really counted in those official monthly jobless numbers we keep seeing), is also aggravated by the expansion of the privatized public space. Because of the need for constant online access, underserved populations — from the low-income to those looking for work — need open-air free and dependable WiFi to access an array of information and services. Starbucks happens to serve as a well-known and rather ubiquitous spot for that activity. An increase in entrepreneurship among communities of color, particularly Black women who represent the highest growth in small business development, will trigger a growing need for public space with basic access amenities like broadband. Starbucks has already found itself in the middle of this discussion, and, like the two Black men arrested, it’s not handling it all that well.

And it is, let’s be honest, increasingly difficult for the general public to, for example, use a bathroom when away from home — unless you have access to through work or you’ve paid for specific events or retail experiences such as a restaurant, an outing or travel. The downsides from the widely accepted arrangement between public and private property owners to use what is considered “public space,” but really isn’t, are growing, as Harvard’s Jarold Kayden observes.

This is where we’ll need the next phase of this conversation to go. Society will need to explore it’s comfort level with privatized space, and how much we’re willing to surrender our ability to move freely to the whims of company employees. We’ve already acquiesced most of our privacy to digital platforms and increased surveillance. It all depends on what sort of future we envision ourselves and our kids in.

CHARLES D. ELLISON is Executive Producer/Host of “Reality Check,” a daily public affairs program on WURD radio (Philadelphia). He is also Washington Correspondent to The Philadelphia Tribune and regular contributor to the Philadelphia Citizen. Ellison is Principal of B|E Strategy. He can be reached @ellisonreport on Twitter.

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