February 7, 2012

Why Midtown is Better Than Royal Oak: A Tale of Two Starbucks

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*Encounters at two Starbucks - one in Detroit, one in Royal Oak -  provoked an epiphany about gathering places, demographics and how the interplay between these factors influence how people behave toward each other. 

But before we get into that, if you're on a Mac,  for the love of god, please change your monitor's color space to sRBG. Trust me. Its the right thing to do.  If you're not sure how to do it, go here

Part One: A Distinguished Gentleman

Researchers at MIT recently proved that not even time can escape the gravitational pull of a Xbox 360. So, when I need to pull free from the productivity-killing siren song of Grand Theft Auto IV, I bike to a nearby Starbucks in Midtown Detroit.

What I like most about this Starbucks is the way it serves as a nexus for people from all walks of life: med school students; other photographers meeting with perspective clients; city council members; and the occasional disheveled, quaintly aromatic stranded traveler who just needs 37 cents to ride the Night Train home.

Even better than the patrons, is the always friendly staff. The night manager is a 20-something black dude who is always kind, soft-spoken and - perhaps most importantly in a location with this kind of clientele - willing to firmly yet politely direct weary "travelers" to take their fundraising campaigns outside.

This is the first Starbucks location in our mini epic, and the place where I encountered Thurston Renner-Thomas a few days ago. Thurston is a pharmaceutical sales rep from Sierra Leone by way of Europe. He's one of those dudes that is so tall, that you can tell he's tall even when he's sitting down. He also the kind of guy who obviously thinks about his appearance; even his bright red earbud cord seemed the perfect counterpoint to his grey-blue pinstriped suit, and his deep-brown complexion.

I immediately recognized that this person, in this setting, with this palette of colors meant I had to break free of my early-morning antisocialism, and approach him for a photograph.

I asked and he obviously agreed. I explained I started The People of Detroit because I was displeased with media's unbreakable fixation with all things wrong in the city. To exemplify this fixation, he started to search for the name of a Detroit documentary's trailer he'd seen recently.


"Yes! That's it! They would make you think the city was a warzone."

Detropia is a film by the directors of the Oscar-nominated "Jesus Camp."  Neither Thurston nor I had seen Detropia in its entirety, but I trust the vignette the filmmakers chose for their trailer is representative of the film's overall tone. If my trust is well-placed, then they would in fact make you think the city is a warzone.

Much of it is.

I'm not a blind booster for Detroit. I'm more than familiar with what's wrong in the city.  I grew up in the kind of neighborhood that makes big-time New York City documentary filmmakers and internationally-acclaimed French photographers alike moist with Oscar and MOMA exhibition ambitions. Since I spent most of my early years looking at decay, my focus as an adult is elsewhere.

The ghetto is most attractive to people who have never had to live there.

I gladly cede all of the city's abandoned buildings and hollowed souls to pathos-starved out-of-towners. Eat until you are bloated with accolades, renown, and other people's misery.

My focus is elsewhere. I'm interested in art that buoys the soul. I listen to jazz more these days than I do rap. I'm interested in people who are enthusiastically pursuing their passions. I'm also interested in the interaction between people who have realized a certain amount of success and people who are still in its pursuit.

I've lived - for a few weeks at a time - in Chicago, New York, and Shanghai, China. Of all the places I've visited, the best places are places where successful people live along side people who aspire to succeed.

This Starbucks is a microcosm for this kind of place and a microcosm of Midtown. Its the kind of place where an impeccably dressed, educated, worldly pharmaceutical sales rep inhabits the same space as a middle school kid who ducks into the shop to avoid waiting for the bus in the cold.

That middle school kid is from the kind of neighborhood you'd see in a Detroit documentary. He and Thurston come from two different worlds, but when they arrive in a community like Midtown, they stand on equal footing.

Maybe that kid takes note of Thurston the same way I did. Maybe he sees Thurston and is forced to re-imagine what success looks like. Maybe it forces him to rethink what he's come to accept as a masculine ideal.  Perhaps he realizes a man can project strength as surely with quiet refinement as he can with flamboyant crassness.

The opportunity for this kind of cross-cultural exchange is what makes gathering places in urban neighborhoods like Midtown so desirable. Conversely, the lack of this opportunity can lead to catastrophic encounters... like the one in the next leg of our odyssey.

View large on black

Part Two: "Would You Like Room for Racial Animus?"

I mentioned earlier that I'm not a blind booster for Detroit. Well, I'm also not one of those people who lives in the city and eschews all things suburban. I f-ing love Trader Joe's. In the summer time, I'm one to bike from downtown, up John R all the way to Royal Oak to visit one of the other places I love: Barnes and Noble. Which makes the egregious events of mid-January 2012 all the more disappointing.

On January 15, my lady and I drove 12 miles from downtown Detroit to enjoy an afternoon of coffee and magazines at that Barnes and Noble. After picking up a few magazines, we went upstairs to the bookstore's in-house Starbucks.

We sat at adjacent tables; each having roughly the surface area of an extra large pizza. I joked about how small the tables were. I then moved my table closer to my girl's. 

We were getting settled in and figuring out what we wanted to drink, when a Starbucks employee [who we would later learn was the shop's manager, Heather] abandoned two waiting customers, marched out from behind the counter and instructed my partner and I that we were not allowed to push tables together.

As my girl went to point out a group of women behind us who had consolidated two much larger tables seemingly in violation of Heather's edict, Heather preempted her by explaining that those people were members of a "book club" that called two weeks in advance to secure special authorization to... push tables together.

Heather then walked away to attend to her line. My partner and I kind of looked at each other, mouths agape, in shock at Heather's irrational request. Each of the tables we occupied, were designed to accomandate one person and their belongings (laptop, books, etc). This means it was completely irrelevant if they were pushed together or not; since only one person's belongings could fit on the tables in the first place. Oh, then there's the fact that other people were doing the very thing Heather said was not allowed:


But wait, there's more.

After my companion and I did not immediate heed Heather's frappuccino fatwa, she abandoned waiting customers yet again, to restate her command, this time adding, if we did not comply we would be asked to leave because we "weren't customers."

At this point, the righteous indignation set roiling at Heather's first intrusion into our lives, finally overran my commitment to civility and I - in so many words - invited Heather to go have conjugal relations with herself. 

Heather apparently took umbrage at my vacation suggestion. She responded by calling the police. Naturally.

I guess Heather thought I was the kind of "Detroiter" who would shuddered at the thought of law enforcement. The best thing about not being a criminal, is not being afraid of the police.

"Call em."

I was taking the pictures you see above as the police arrived. I packed away my camera, vowed vengeance on Heather, and exited the store via police escort.

Part of me wishes I had remained calm, even after Heather's relentless unprofessional, provocative, irrational, contemptuous behavior. What would she have done if I sat calmly and refused to heed her ridiculous commands? What would she have done without any excuse to call the police? Would she have called them anyway? That would have been something to see.

Then again, part of me is glad I checked this wayward barista. Maybe she'll think twice about making untoward demands on unfamiliar "Detroiters." This would be good for her because the next "Detroiter" she pulls that on may have more than just unkind words for her. So, I guess in a way, I did her a favor.

You're welcome, Heather.

I imagine, however, if Heather was accustomed to being in the same space with people who are unlike her, she never would have harassed us, and there never would have been occasion for me to get upset in the first place.

Perhaps if she had such occasion, it would have moderated her unjustified apparent sense of her own superiority - if not nullifying it altogether.

Anyone who knows me, knows I'm not one to reflexively accuse people of racism. I'm not especially preoccupied with race as I realized long ago that humans beings at their core are just stupid, tribal apes who enjoy sorting themselves into groups of "us" and "them." Race is just one trait among many used to form those hierarchies.

Once you understand that all human beings are hardwired to subjugate other human beings for a wide variety of reasons, racism tends to no longer be your go-to explanation for ill behavior.

That said, when you get into a conflict that may have a racial component, you're usually left without any reliable way to infer the person's motives. You're left asking yourself, was I mistreated for some reason unrelated to race or is it because I'm black?

This, however, is one of those rare incidents where there is scientific evidence of racism. There's photographs of a control and experimental group. Controlling for all other variables, the only difference between Group A, and Group B and C is race. We can therefore reasonably conclude that race was the motivating factor behind Heather's behavior.

On the drive home, I started thinking about how our experience with Heather differed from my experiences around where I live in the downtown/Midtown area. What I realized, is that in 6 years of living in this area, I've amassed friends from a wide variety of backgrounds - working class whites, upper class whites, Africans (the continent, not the country), Saudi students, black Americans, people who are descended from Gypsies (seriously)  - and I've never had a incident like this occur (in fairness, I haven't had many instances like this in the suburbs either. Most of of the people I encounter in Royal Oak and other burbs are friendly if not indifferent).

I asked myself what was the key variable that makes this event even possible in Royal Oak and practically unthinkable in Midtown (as an aside, my girl went to high school in Royal Oak and said she'd been told to not metaphorically "push the tables together" in one way or another dozens of times during her school days).

I concluded the variable was demographics. The demographics in Midtown are such, that no one group predominates. As a consequence, no member of any one group feels empowered to act with impunity.

Someone like Heather would be far less inclined to pull this kind of stunt at a coffeeshop where she was surrounded by "Detroiters."

It is this sense that that everyone is on equal footing, that makes Midtown better than Royal Oak. Obviously, I'm over simplifying for the sake of narrative impact (I doubt anyone would have read a article titled, "Mixed-income, culturally diverse urban areas are more likely to promote cross-identity, pro-social behavior than homogenized suburban enclaves"), but this statement nonetheless accurately reflects a long-held if not thoroughly vetted sociological premise (though most of the academic material seems to focus on the benefit to underprivileged groups, and not the benefit everyone derives from living around people from outside their social class).

I'm sure my grand epiphany is old hat to some of my urban planning and social policy friends. Its also an idea I've heard in passing but never explored extensively. I suppose even if I would have looked further into it, one can read about theoretical social phenomenon, but no amount of reading quite leaves the impression that is left when a social phenomenon rides roughshod into real life.

When this incident happened, I vowed to do everything in my power to make sure Heather was fired.  In light of my epiphany, I think it would be even better if she was transfered to Midtown.

<<<Fingers Crossed>>>

Update [03/02/12]

Nearly a full month after contacting Starbucks customer service, I have not been given a final resolution from the company regarding this issue. I've decided to leave the following message on Starbucks' Facebook Wall:

"On January 15, 2012, my companion and I were at the Royal Oak Barnes & Noble Starbucks. A manager there named Heather told us that our tables could not be "pushed together" without her expressed, prior permission.
When we did not immediately comply with her command, she called the police and had us escorted from the premises.
I am a photographer and writer in Detroit. I wrote a essay detailing the entire incident on my photo project's site. The entry is the most widely-read in the two-year history of the project: 
I contacted Starbucks customer service on 2/09/12 regarding this incident. I asked that they follow up with a resolution for this matter. I have not yet heard a response. 
The behavior of the Royal Oak Starbucks manager stands in direct opposition to your company's publicly-stated progressive ideals. I expect the manager will be excised from your organization."
I believe the Starbuck's manager's behavior was unacceptable. If you agree, tell Starbucks so:


- Noah -

Noah Stephens founded The People of Detroit in April 2010 as a counterpoint to media fixated on despair and disrepair in the storied birthplace of American auto manufacturing. Since, TPOD has received national and international attention. Portraits from the project have appeared in Bloomberg BusinessWeek and other national publications. In early 2011, a creative director saw the project online and hired Noah to shoot an ad campaign for McDonald's Corporation in Shanghai, China. 

The People of Detroit Photodocumentary is funded in part by a grant from CEOS for Cities and the John S. And James L. Knight Foundation.


Anonymous said...

amazing articles Noah! well spoken!

Supreme Tees said...

Nice write up. Incredible photo

Andreas said...

This is really crazy. Did you think about geting some press attentions?

Girl Z said...

I love it!

JB said...

Great article - great points. I recently read an article in WSJ about how we are more separate now than ever. How it used to be that towns had all kinds of people, even if they lived in different neighborhoods - they went to the same high school and ate int eh same restaurants and vacationed in the same places. But now there are whole towns (zip codes?) for people that can afford them with their own schools and gated communities up north where only certain people vacation. Really got me thinking. Your post did too... we have to do whatever it takes to support the places that allow for the mingling of all kinds of folks. I think its critical.

Claire said...

You didn't need to tell me that mixed-income, culturally diverse urban areas are more likely to promote cross-identity, pro-social behavior than homogenized suburban enclaves. But I'm glad you did. Thanks for sharing your story, Noah.

Poppa Rotsee said...

My man! I graced the hallowed halls of the same dormitory as this man! Even listened to his music indirectly, lol. Seriously, This is a GREAT read. Unfortunately, this happens more often than it's written about. Keep it up, Noah. You've inspired me to make photos and write prose Just. Like. You...

Sean said...

A great read. Thanks for sharing! I recall the last time someone got all "Heather" on me...

Rachel said...

Although I really enjoyed the article, I did notice a difference other than race between yourself and the other patrons in the photos...they had coffee. Perhaps I missed your order, but had you guys ordered anything from the Starbucks? Not that this should be tolerable either, but the issue may be that you didn't buy anything as opposed to race (just being devil's advocate here). I know you mentioned you guys had just settled in, but she may have assumed that you weren't ordering anything... just a thought

undressingHER said...

Your literary prowess is amazing. The imagery made me feel like I was watching the events while they happened in front of me. I really need to read more forward thinking blogs such as this one. While I'm not the biggest fan of Detroit, to quote you, "the best places are places where successful people live along side people who aspire to succeed," was beyond powerful.

The People of Detroit said...

First, I'd like to thank every one for taking the time to read, comment on, and share this article. This article is on-pace to be the most widely read post in the 2-year history of TPOD.

I'm glad to know that this piece has spoken to and for so many people.

My companion and I are fully capable of buying a cup of coffee; even at Starbucks. I clearly stated that we had just sat down and were about to order.

You state that you read that in the article. You also note that even if we had not ordered anything, Heather's behavior was still inexcusable. So, I have to ask, what exactly is the point of your comment?

Rachel, don't make me write a blog post about you...


Katetb said...

Great post. You hit at the very essence of why my husband and I are so happy and remain so committed to our life in Detroit. While I still think my social circle contains a lot of people who FEEL like me, it is comforting to realize that we FEEL alike because of common goals and affinities. The backgrounds, colors, sexual orientations are pretty diverse. Here's to hoping it keeps diversifying as we all realize that all Detroit is in it together, and that is why it is so special!

JonKung88 said...

I've been a fan of your blog since it had the slogan of "Because not all of us hunt (or was it eat) raccoons" but I've been rather silent until now. This was an amazing piece and an amazing portrait. I'm so glad that this city has voices like yours who are willing to speak up for it.

And that little bit on how you so delicately described the things that heather could do with herself… brilliant.

Tam-lien said...

WOW! Heather sounds like a control freak as well as a racist. It would have been another story if she would have gone to other customers and tell them to move there tables back as well. If the tables were not meant to be moved they should have them tacked down. I really do hope she looses her job just for the fact that the police were called because you did not want to move your table. You have a talent for words. I felt like I was there when reading and wish the story would not end. Great article. Oh and if she was saving the seats for paying customers she would have said that instead of talking about tables.

Unknown said...

Greetings from Tokyo. I've been a watcher of your blog for some time now too. I love your pictures and you are an inspiration.

I truly loved this entry here. You were completely in the right. Eventually I'll make my way back to Detroit and I will be heading to Starbucks in Midtown; a much more friendlier place.

alicia said...

Wow! Great read Noah. Alicia Ware-Wilson

oni1111 said...

Just so you know, it's a Licensed Store, meaning that it isn't really a Starbucks, it's Barnes and Noble's employees working at a licensed store.

Your complaint should be to Barnes and Nobel's.

Edge Marketing said...

Great article...I do wonder whether in this time of hyper-sensitivity and political correctness if Heather -- an employee of a large corporation that would be very concerned with its image -- is truly a racist. I am more inclined to believe she falls into a category that may be more common but just as arrogant, ignorant and painful than a racist: asshole! In fact, as you mention above about the hierarchy of human nature, Heather may actually fall into an asshole subcategory such as faux-power, fast-food manager asshole, or even the snobby bitch asshole.
Nevertheless, whether Heather is racist or just an asshole someone needs to remind her the golden rule that all of our mothers once taught us; treat people the way you would like to be treated.

Erin O. said...

You write beautifully and you are a photographer?! You're like superman! This post was great, I can't wait to read more.

Anonymous said...

I see that Oni1111 let you know this but I wanted to emphasize it - since you were hoping for some resolution - that it is Barnes and Noble your complaint should go to.
Barnes and Noble cafes have a license to serve Starbucks products while remaining a Barnes and Noble cafe. All employees in the Barnes and Noble cafe are Barnes and Noble employees - were interviewed and hired in the same way the booksellers of the store were.
Barnes and Noble cafes are unable to accept Starbucks gift cards because they are not a Starbucks - but they can accept Barnes and Noble gift cards.
Your call, then, could start with the store manager (not cafe manager) of that Barnes and Noble or that store's district manager.
As a former Barnes and Noble employee I can tell you that the district manager's name is David and he has his office in the West Bloomfield Barnes and Noble store on Orchard Lake Rd.

Beyond that bit of information - your photograph of Thurston Renner-Thomas most definitely portrays that "a man can project strength as surely with quiet refinement as he can with flamboyant crassness". That thought is my favorite part of your article - imagining a middle school kid seeing this man and "Maybe he sees Thurston and is forced to re-imagine what success looks like. Maybe it forces him to rethink what he's come to accept as a masculine ideal." Excellent! One of the best comments I've read about the benefits of cross-cultural living.

Daniel "Danny" Stinson said...

First off, great site. Love the concept(and the picture of the pharm rep from SL is fantastic).

However, you are in extreme error in your conclusion about the Starbucks. It's a private entity that, by law and normal human interaction, is allowed to govern their premise as they see fit. And they have seen fit to keep tables separate, unless prior authorizaiton has been made. That's not a strang, nor unreasonable request.

However, it is not civil nor appropriate to decide your own will and desires are more important than the person/company that is providing you a service. I'm sorry, but you completely disrespected another person who was just trying to do her job as best she could. Could she have been more friendly? Probably, but maybe she's been struggling, maybe her boss had gotten on to her about the tables.

Instead of being so quick to judge, perhaps when invited into someone elses space we should respect the guidelines they see fit, and not be so quick to tell them off. I know that I would not take kindly to be told to "have realtions with myself either."

So with all that said, your site is great, but I'm afraid you are a bit hypocritical in your philosophy. You want people to respect you and your expression of the world, but refuse to respect others that differ from your own.

Guest said...

Good news is, you don't have to leave Midtown to go to a Barnes & Noble or Barnes & Noble Cafe! There is one on the corner of Cass and Warren. :)

ThePeopleofDetroit said...

Very true, Guest :)

ThePeopleofDetroit said...


You don't seem to understand what happened that day. I would try to explain the context to you, but I doubt you would understand it any more than you do now. 

Daniel Stinson said...

Actually no, I understand it great.  You painted the picture perfectly, allow me to explain...

1) you and your girl pushed two tables together at a Starbucks
2) an employee quickly came and told you two that you are not allowed to that at this establishement (a perfectly valid and common regulation)
3) you pointed out a group of tables pushed together
4) she informed you that they had called 2 weeks in advance and received permission

at which point you say, "My partner and I kind of looked at each other, mouths agape, in shock at Heather's irrational request."

First off, there is absolutely nothing irrational about that request.  That is a common rule, it is private business establishment, and they are providing you a service and a product.  The patrons do not get to decide how a business is run.  That would be the person who pays all the bills and wages of everyone who works there. 

5) You and your partner ignored Heather's request
6) Heather then asks you to leave as you have ignored her reasonable request and apparently have not yet ordered drinks

At which point your response is, "Go f yourself." (if I interpreted correctly)

Perhaps Heather was being too uptight, but nothing she had done was against the law, or even against normal business practice.  And your response was to, in your own words, "overran my commitment to civility"I'm sorry but you need to realize that you were the one in serious error.  You even admited it yourself.  By abandoning civility, and lashing out with threatening language, you have become a worse version of the very person  you are critiquing.  And with your response to me it seems as if you refuse to think deeply about your actions.  Instead with a broad stroke you deem your actions as "righteous" b/c they feel right to you, and then condemn anothers for their alleged (with very little proof) intolerance.  This hypocacy runs rampant in our generation and needs to be addressed.  We find it so easy to see the ill in others, and yet walk completely blind to our own.

So with all that said, I think the idea behind your page is fantastic.  The pictures are amazing.  And you have the potential to make a very positive impact on your community and city.  However, it's going to take you questioning your worldview, and realizing that the intolerance you hate in others, is probably even stronger in yourself. 

Guest said...

Nice how you failed to mention in your complaint that you told Heather to f*** herself.  Lost all respect for you there.  That's the reason she called the police on you, and you deserved it.  That may be acceptable/common in Detroit, but it's not tolerated anywhere else.

ThePeopleofDetroit said...

"At this point, the righteous indignation set roiling at Heather's first intrusion into our lives, finally overran my commitment to civility and I - in so many words - invited Heather to go have conjugal relations with herself. "

- from the article.

Apparently, you don't know what "conjugal" means. Apparently, high school-level literacy is not tolerated where ever you are from, "Guest".

EPayne said...

Don't know if you ever heard back from Starbucks, but don't take it personally if you didn't. Starbucks only licenses their products to Barnes & Noble Cafe's (it's a very small distinction in the sign above the cafe). You need to take your complaint to Barnes & Noble corporate. Go to that store or another one and start by asking for the Regional Manager of your area and then it will move from there. That's a little insider info for you. I hope it helps.

Thetruth said...

Thurston Renner Thomas only proves that a black man can go to college...and he do deserve his props for that..But what makes a true man is his ethics and character..and if you really had the experience to know this true man..his looks will not fool you nor his job. He is a perfect example on why it is not good to judge a book by its cover. If you knew this ture man who dont even drink cofee by the way..you would tell your sons that this is  not the type of man that you want him to be. Always do your homework before you judge any person by thier good looks and education accreditation.  Just ask many of the women in different states what type of man he really is..Especially the women in Atlanta Georgia. many menag a trois, in his hotel room with his male and female friends, and ask him his true age and he will do what he does best..LIE! If you do not believe me. do a little research that is not on paper. go to the underground sex cafe in Atlanta GA, and you will find plenty of research on who the real Thurston Renner Thomas is... He only testifies to the already torn down black man..so his very essence reaps of even more shame and embarassment to the entire black race. So in all of your wisdom get understanding!

The Truth

Thetruth said...

In you epiphany. Mr Thomas..it seems that now it is time to reap the many corrupt seeds that you have sewn..and your poor partner( well at least this one) will be gone in the winds as soon as you get deep enough..for we know how Heathers re-act to black men who are in distress! Heathers always run real fast.. so get ready for the real ride..All strong towers must come down..once we dont have respect for God;s people then he will humble us..

Thetruth said...

What? not the so called distinguished gentleman? so once again. hes holding his tongue on the truth..thats not very distinguished or gentleman..sorry but clothes dont make a man..the heart does...

FatScribe said...

Hey Peeps o' D-Town --

unreal.  diggin' this blog and the twitter home it also resides in/on.

Re: this incident above.  yup.  too sad.  but, i have learned over the years (of my own "woops! probably shouldn't have reacted that way" responses) that being gracious is the best ultimate weapon against fools like heather.

i am glad you stood up for yourself, and that you of course brought this to starbucks corporate hq attention.  however, at the end of the day (don't you hate that phrase? apologies), it's how you feel about your maintaining your sense of decorum and respect for our fellow man.  a calm remonstrance against heather w/out the eff-bomb might have made her regret her own foolishness even more so.  either way, writing this post is the best self-check against future mistakes (at least speaking for myself).

keep up the great work on the blog.


Dave Gee said...

So I went to the  B&N FB page and scrolled back to the date that you posted and it seems as though they erased your comment/posting... Not that I find that surprising, given the actions of the manager and her apparent lack of fear in doing so...

I don't know if you have a twitter account or not, but you might consider not letting this go... Use all that is available to you and KEEP doing it until you get some sort of response... I would write a letter every few weeks or post to twitter every other day and keep hash tagging them or including their handle in your tweets, until I got some sort of response...

But that's just me... I'm kind of a pain in the ass in general... LOL