Neal Milner: We Still Need Sidewalks And Shopping Centers Where We Can Linger - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Here’s the way a vital sense of community disappears.

The space outside of Starbucks at Hawaii Kai’s Koko Marina Shopping Center used to be a hangout and a gathering place. Not anymore.

Now there are just a total of four chairs for the four outside tables. The bathroom closed permanently a few months ago. 

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The regulars have moved somewhere else. So have the dogs. Even those chronic beggar doves, sparrows and Brazilian cardinals have flown the coop. 

They know a bad thing when they see it.

The space has become mainly an uninterrupted passthrough for customers hurrying back to their cars after picking up their online orders. People walk by but don’t stop. There is no one to stop for.  

It feels desolate.

I’d like to think that Aldo Leopold, environmental ethicist, the founder of the field of wildlife management, and a hero to today’s environmentalist movement, would have some choice words for Starbucks.

What Leopold, who died years before Starbucks sold its first Frappuccino, said about land and community applies as much to Starbuck’s sidewalk as it does to the forest or the stream.

“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity,” he wrote in his classic book, A Sand County Almanac.”  

But “When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” 

Koko Marina Starbucks is certainly a commodity. It is private property rented to a business that for most purposes is entitled to do what it wants. From that perspective, that’s the end of the story.  

But it’s not the end of the story because that story is too narrow and sterile. It underestimates the broader contribution that spaces like Koko Marina’s coffee sidewalk makes to civic life.

Call that contribution “a third space,” a term that describes behavior rooted in history and is a key part of democratic life. It’s also a term that Starbucks uses.

A community perspective stresses interaction and links rather than boundaries and separation.

Shopping centers are not just commodities.

They are hybrids. They are private property, which the law goes a long way to protect and enhance as in “It’s my property, I can do what I want.”

But the law has also recognized that there are some limits to this because a shopping center is also a public gathering place. 

I don’t want to go down that legal rabbit hole any further. Suffice to say that gathering is a part of shopping center culture. People, including your kids when you wonder where they are because they should be home studying, hang out there.  

So do a lot of other people — old folks sitting at tables having coffee waiting for Costco to open, cyclists stopping to use the bathrooms.   

Plus, shopping centers are designed in part to get you to linger. That’s why they are now often called “town centers.”

Savvy marketing combines with people’s social needs.

Aldo Leopold, left, shown with his family at the shack that was the backdrop for his environmental classic, “A Sand Country Almanac.” Wikimedia Commons

So, in a culturally powerful way, spaces like the area outside Koko Marina Starbucks help build community by giving folks a place to gather and act in different ways.

Portland has had a coffee house culture for a long time. Lots of small neighborhood places the size of storage lockers and chairs left over from the Formica Era.

Anyway, my daughter calls Starbucks “corporate coffee” that drives out these small businesses. 

That’s definitely not the case in Hawaii where coffee places where almost non-existent before Starbucks came in. Starbucks created community spaces that were lacking here before.  

And it ain’t just the coffee. It’s the space. This space creation is precisely what Starbuck’s founder Howard Schultz set out to do. 

Schultz, who has come back to be the company’s CEO for the third time, made community building a part of the business plan. 

These third places have a long history, going back to the ancient Greeks. They’ve survived because hangouts are so vital to social life.  

Starbucks’ stated aim was to balance “profitability with social conscience.” That easily fits into what Aldo Leopold had in mind.

Here’s a quote from the company’s “Starbucks Stories:” “He (Schultz) wanted to create a place for human connection, conversation and one that fostered a sense of community – a third place between work and home.” 

So, there’s that third place idea again. People desire space that differs from your family and job. That’s not an escape. It’s a complement, an enhancement.

To you cynics out there, this may sound like corporate bullshit. It’s not. Schultz has been remarkable in his ability firmly to make this personal belief part of corporate culture. 

At times, that has made Starbucks a target when the company showed signs of moving away from this community inclusiveness. But it still has a reputation for being community oriented

And Schultz is showing all the signs of Founder’s Syndrome with his over-the-top resistance to barista unionization.  

He is tarnishing his social conscience merit badge. But the fact remains that Starbucks wants us to hold it to a higher standard. 

This “You’re the rabbi’s son, You should know better” argument takes us only so far. What’s most important is not just Starbuck’s Koko Marina-illustrated pitfalls.   

At base is not the threats but rather what is being threatened — a threat to a third place.

Over 30 years ago and well before Starbucks became a global institution, the sociologist Ray Oldenburg wrote a highly acclaimed book,The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of Community.”  

These third places have a long history, going back to the ancient Greeks. They’ve survived because hangouts are so vital to social life.  

Enough about history. In fact, the biggest coffee third space in Hawaii, one that existed before Starbucks and is still going strong, is the Golden Arches.  

Take that, Howard Schultz, you whippersnapper. 

And it’s not just about the special price for seniors’ coffee. Every morning older folks gather inside McDonald’s to do just what third places do.  

Michael Cheang did a wonderful ethnographic study of the group of older regulars at Ala Moana McDonald’s

These seniors are not lonely, isolated people with no social ties. Most of them are wired into their families. This is Hawaii after all. A few still have jobs.  They gather for morning coffee because they need this third way to enhance their lives  by acting in different ways. 

Shopping locations remain important as gathering places for people who would otherwise be socially isolated. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

It’s easy to miss and trivialize the significance of a third space. It’s hidden in plain sight because we define it away — just a bunch of retirees yakking or a few women killing some time before Costco.

It’s much more though. I could talk more about democratic theory that supports this or how much you learn from people if you meet with them in this kind of space.

But let me ask you to look into yourself instead — the way you feel and act when are hanging out at a third place — a brew pub; a covered car port to watch a TV football game; lawn chairs in back of a Little League centerfield; a pickleball court; or the space between two parked cars at the Koko Marina parking lot where Niu Intermediate students can act like the wild animals we all know adolescents are because we were like that once too and still talk about it, not in front of our grandchildren but only in our own adult third spaces.   

Make your own list.

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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

Actually the Starbucks that sat on the corner of Auahi and Ward was a gathering space for me and many others. Regulars would oft times come enjoy a cup of expensive coffee and chat. Sure there where those on their laptops, but I would say over half, maybe 75% met to talk business, or just catch up. Then covid hit and eventually the whole block was recently raised to make room for progress. Even longer ago Lion coffee occupied a little space near the corner of Queen and Ward, now gone the old wooden structure still stands, a testament to the old pushing back against the new. It didn't have much sitting space, but it was a spot that you would see the same local folks that worked in the area getting their brew. Let's hope all these new developments can maintain some open spaces for people to gather and meet. After all that is what it is being marketed as; live, work, play. Let's hope they don't forget.

wailani1961 · 4 months ago

I'm sorry Mr. Milner. The "good old days" were when people drank coffee with their neighbors at their house When I was growing up, I and my parents knew everyone on the block. Now people don't even now their who their neighbors are. Sad.

Whatarewedoing · 4 months ago

Time as changed the way people gather today. In the olden days we gathered and talked story. We looked into each others eyes and listened to their stories. Today they don't do it the same way. Go anywhere and you will see people gather but they don't look into the other person's eyes and no one's really talking. Every one around the table are too involved with their cell phone. Too bad, so sad.

kealoha1938 · 4 months ago

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