An ongoing dispute between elderly Koreans and a Flushing McDonald’s over seating was resolved Monday after an intervention by Assemblyman Ron Kim (D-Flushing).
Kim, who is a Korean American, held a press conference in the morning across the street from the fast-food eatery on Northern and Parsons boulevards, surrounded by other elected officials and representatives from the Korean community.
Over the last week, controversy erupted publicly because a group of seniors have been monopolizing space at the restaurant for some time, nursing a cup of coffee or french fries for hours. At times, paying customers were unable to find seating.
The situation had escalated recently and police were called in several times to roust the elderly. Many in the Korean community were offended, saying in their culture seniors are to be respected and to leave them alone.
Kim stepped into the fray and arranged a compromise during a weekend session in his office with the McDonald’s owner, Jack Bert, and 12 of the seniors. From now on, seniors will have extended sitting hours, except during high-traffic hours from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; signs will be posted to communicate the change in Chinese and Korean; and Kim will collaborate with area senior centers in offering transportation to and from the restaurant.
The assemblyman added that police will not be called in the future and his office will work to resolve any conflicts.
Kim said that it is important to work together as a community for unity, especially on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which was held on Monday. He called the situation delicate because “we see the plight of the small business owner trying to make a living and the seniors, who need more places to go.”
He called for more resources to provide options for seniors, noting that the six area senior centers are already crowded.
Congresswoman Grace Meng (D-Flushing) said the compromise “is a peaceful solution to coexist.”
State Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Whitestone) called the negotiations “a fair compromise,” while City Councilman Peter Koo (D-Flushing) said the dilemma was caused by the restaurant having limited seats, but “we also want to respect our seniors.”
Kwang Kim, president of Korean Community Services, offered his organization’s vans to transport seniors to centers. The closest Korean senior center run by KCS is 20 blocks away.
Linda Lee, KCS executive director, noted that her organization primarily serves senior citizens. “We believe the real underlying issue that this incident has highlighted is the lack of social services and resources available for our seniors,” Lee said. “We need to create more places where they can go and spend time with their peers and feel a sense of independence and ownership.”
She said KCS hopes to open more centers in the future, but for now it will create cafe space at its existing centers for seniors.
Kim said the conflict was never about discrimination or racism. “It was more of a cultural miscommunication,” he said. “It was a small business owner, who has been doing business in Flushing for 20 years, trying to keep his business running while accommodating our local seniors.”
Two of the Korean seniors who hang out at McDonald’s spoke through an interpreter. Byung Uk Cho and Sang-Yong Park said they were happy McDonald’s agreed to listen to their concerns and blamed the dispute on cultural differences.
Across the street and up a couple of blocks is a Burger King, but Kim stressed that the seniors won’t forsake McDonald’s to congregate there. “They live on the McDonald’s side of the street and like to go there,” he said. “They have no intention of going to Burger King.”
But one Korean-American activist from Flushing says the problem is more widespread. Sunny Hahn, who is associated with the Korean American Association of Queens, did not attend Monday’s press conference, but said by phone that Korean seniors also hang out at Burger King and at several bakery-coffee shops on or near Union Street.
“It’s sad; there are not enough facilities for them,” Hahn said. “Even the Korean bakeries can’t handle the situation.”
She said that one of the bakeries took out its bathrooms to discourage loiterers.
Terence Park, another Korean-American activist from Flushing, told the Chronicle on Monday that the seniors who refused to leave McDonald’s “are not criminals. They are grandmas and grandpas. We have to be more understanding.”
Park agrees there is a real need for places seniors can go, because they can’t stay at senior centers all day. “They don’t have much money, need a place to hang out and they want it to be a nonreligious facility,” he said, “because they don’t feel comfortable in a religious setting.”
He noted that the seniors go to parks in the warm weather, but there are no places to congregate in the winter.
“We need to educate senior centers and churches” to do a better job, Park added. “Even my father hung out at McDonald’s in the past. It is part of their daily routine.”