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June 02, 2005

Question for the Day

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I don't often visit big-box stores. When I do, though, I always wind up wondering: Do fat people tend to shop at CostCo? Or does shopping at CostCo tend to make people fat?



posted by Michael at June 2, 2005


You want to see fat shoppers, check out Wally World.

Posted by: Peter on June 2, 2005 12:18 PM

btw, it's Costco.

Posted by: David Sucher on June 2, 2005 12:40 PM

In a similar vein, there is a Chinese buffet in our neighborhood. When we visited, there seemed to be disproportionately more of two dissimilar kinds of people in the clientele - the very fat and the very skinny. Sad to say, it seemed to us that the very skinny may have been bulimic from the many visits to the restroom and to the food. Why this weird cross-section of body types at this place? Because they could get more and more food for cheaper. Probably the same thing at work at Costco - when quantity is the main goal, Costco delivers in spades. What is the cause and what the effect? My money is on Costco not being causative but being contributory.

Posted by: Jim L on June 2, 2005 12:42 PM

Costco & Sam's (Wal-Mart's version) both seem to draw XXL's. Aside from large sizes attracting Large sizes, the layout and dimensions of these shopping areas demand that shoppers carry on their persons a sizable quantity of Future Energy Source. I thought that an interesting study would have folks procuring mass quantities at Costco or Sam's to be weighed upon entrance and exit. I believe that, in addition to all of the walking, the pushing around of the shopping carts (which are all bigger than the usual supermarket variety) and/or the wheeled skids results in calories being burned off at a faster clip than would occur with normal shopping.
So, unless you're packing some girth which would provide you with body fuel, you may be dropping from the exhaustion of acquisition.

Posted by: DarkoV on June 2, 2005 01:01 PM


Those who shop at Costco tend to also own RVs and spend their vacations and retirements at casinos.

The problem, if you've ever been to one of the Indian reservation casinos in Oregon, is the all you can eat buffet for $8.95.

This is where the porkers really pack it in. And, if they can fit their asses in the chairs, they get to listen to the Three Dog Night show after the buffet.

Posted by: Stephen on June 2, 2005 01:03 PM

The person who posted this thought definitely has a higher Aspie score than 36!

Posted by: annette on June 2, 2005 01:30 PM

Although it's decreasing, there's a negative correlation between income and obesity in America.

Also, people who shop at Costco probably aren't looking for the most nutritious food available.

Posted by: anon on June 2, 2005 01:52 PM

A funny thing is that much of the food available at Costco (thanks, David), at least the one branch I see every now and then, is really good. Excellent meats, fish, fruit. A lot of fresh stuff, and not too much packaged stuff. The food there could be (I guess the key word here is "could") a good basis for a healthy life. Makes me wonder how to explain it: the doublewides doing their shopping at a place where the food really isn't at all bad.

A friend from the south tells me that, while southerners have always enjoyed their food, you didn't really see too many blimpish XXLs until the last few decades. His theory is that it's a consequence of TVs, shopping malls (and now Costcos and WalMarts), driving everywhere, and packaged food. He says that very few people in the South now do any walking at all. Seems plausible.

Posted by: Michael on June 2, 2005 05:59 PM

I've often joked that when I want to feel thin, I can just go to Wal-Mart.

Posted by: Jaz on June 2, 2005 06:02 PM

Speaking of humanity at Wally World, check out Wally World at three a.m. in a big city.
I'm talking Denver here, but I'ld bet it's the same across this great nation.
A higher(sic) slice is not represented anywhere at any time. America the Midevil.
A real live soap opera.

Posted by: Jay Al on June 2, 2005 06:07 PM

I recently found pre-marinated boneless skinless chicken breasts at Costco about $3/lb cheaper than the same brand at local supermarkets. Combine with that with an oven (or, better yet, a George Foreman-style mini-grill) and you've got a perfectly healthy graduate student diet staple. Other than that (and their sometimes great deals on fresh salmon fillets), I rarely buy anything there.

I actually think they're soemtimes really good for non-food items, too. I got Eco's new book for ~$15, which made me particularly happy. Mmmm... new paper.

As far as the obesity question goes, I think a previous commenter gets it right with the word "contributory." Homo sapiens simply didn't emerge from the process of natural selection for its ability to manage calorie-heavy food intake and sedentary lifestyles.

Going in a slightly different direction, I wonder about unhappiness addressed by increased consumption (of food or otherwise). Lord knows that I can polish off a pint of Ben and Jerry's when I'm feeling down, and I've only got my age (and my genes) to thank for my waistline and metabolism. Eating is something most of us are built to enjoy, but overeating also leads most of us to obesity which leads to name-calling and finger-pointing and a general sense of social ostracism.

I don't know where I'm going with this, precisely, but I don't think it's farfetched to link the (post-)modern preoccupation with irony and social/consumerist dissatisfaction to something a bit more grounded, like Costco or McDonald's, or the rise in developed country obesity rates.

Posted by: Michael non-Blowhard on June 2, 2005 06:18 PM

I'm wondering if Stephen is confusing Costco's demographics with those for Wall-Mart.

What follows is old info, but it rings true when I find myself at the local Costco store...

Maybe 12 years ago a big Costco wheel (possibly James Sinegal, now Pres/CEO, but I might be wrong) gave a talk to the Puget Sound chapter of the American Marketing Association. At the time, I was an AMA member. And Costco is headquartered in a Seattle suburb. One thing he stressed in his talk was that Costco had a pretty affluent membership profile. We're not talking the Gucci-Gucci-goo crowd, but instead college-educated white-collar types and higher-paid blue-coller workers. Obviously many income groups are represented, but their sweet-spot was higher up the ladder than K- or Wall-Mart's.

All this is not to say that Costco is lardass-free, but my own informal feeling is that their shoppers are more svelte that what's found in Wall-Mart or even Target.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on June 2, 2005 08:11 PM

FYI: Costco: A Shopping Service, not just a store

Posted by: David Sucher on June 2, 2005 08:50 PM

It's just that the aisles are rilly rilly wide. Maybe that's like an implied invitation.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on June 2, 2005 10:50 PM

The aisles are wide because they use forklifts to move stuff.

Costco isn't that bad really. We sometimes buy produce there, fresh mozzarella, queso blanco, seafood and other meats, wine, wine and more wine, etc, etc. Every six months we go back there for a new enormous jug of olive oil :)

I read a little while ago that some art collector sold two Picassos through Costco. They apparently also sold a Chagall and a Miro. They're lithographs and drawings, afaik not paintings. I've read before that Costco is more "upscale".

Wal-mart fears Costco, at least according to Fortune Magazine.

Costco is the U.S.'s biggest seller of fine wines ($600 million a year) and baster of poultry (55,000 rotisserie chickens a day). Last year it sold 45 million hot dogs at $1.50 each and 60,000 carats of diamonds at up to $100,000. Chef Julia Child buys meat at Costco. Yuppies seek the latest gadgets there. Even people who don't have to pinch pennies shop at Costco. "I like bargain securities," says Berkshire Hathaway vice chairman Charlie Munger, a Costco shopper, investor, and director. "Why shouldn't I like bargain golf balls?"

Posted by: lindenen on June 2, 2005 11:17 PM

Speaking of Wal-Mart, I've read that in certain areas the stores are popular singles' meeting places late at night. Somehow the very idea brings on a bit of nausea :)

Posted by: Peter on June 2, 2005 11:19 PM

I used to work at a Costco in Hazlet, NJ and the most popular product, BY FAR, was bottled water in the "sports bottles" (you know, the ones with the special spout). The store would open to the general public at 10am and all of them would be gone by 11:15. Most people would buy at least 2 cases, but some times as many as 6 (6 cases is like a 144 bottles). We couldn't stock enough. Amazing.

Posted by: Ian Lewis on June 2, 2005 11:21 PM

Also, since we're talking big box stores, you've clearly never been to Wegmans. My god. Wegmans: "The Living Poem to Capitalism" with a French patisserie and wine tastings.

Posted by: lindenen on June 2, 2005 11:59 PM

Are we supposed to feel better about Costco because of the Picassos and Chagalls? Aren't these just awful generalisations that you're making? My husband and I drive two-door cars and exercise each day. I don't think we or our friends fit your weird stereotype and we all shop at Costco. It's got great wine, the best meat I've ever eaten in this country, organic greens at the moment, and a nice beer selection. Sometimes I also manage to find a book or a DVD for myself or to use as a gift.

Sin of sins, I'm no longer breaking my back doing my shopping by hand, the way I used to do in an Oxford Street Tesco every day. Sometimes I miss Oxford Street but my back feels great. Thank you, Costco and boo to all generalisers!

Posted by: Lynn Schibeci on June 3, 2005 01:20 AM

"Are we supposed to feel better about Costco because of the Picassos and Chagalls?"

I included the links about the art because Costco and the people who shop there were being looked down upon with such condescension. In other words, we're not all icky and fat. Plus, I just thought it was neat.

This conversation reminds me of that NYTimes editorial from last year with the woman who aborted two of her triplets because she was so repulsed at the thought of moving to the suburbs and buying large containers of mayonnaise at Costco. Whether or not you like big box stores seems to be a class issue. I like having everything together like that, but I find the actual buildings hideous-looking.

Posted by: lindenen on June 3, 2005 02:05 AM

As the poor become poorer, discount stores are increasingly the only choice they have for many of the things they need. On the other hand, by shopping at places like Costco, the middle class is consuming itself out of existence and the luxurious diseases they get from all the processed "food" is slow cosmic justice.

Find a farmer's market, a co-op, or an independent grocery store if you want good deals on real food that benefit the real farmers who grew it for you.

Posted by: Rob Asumendi on June 3, 2005 10:56 AM

What happened with this post? I thought you were lighting a little (humorous) keg of PC dynamite, you know, a chance for folks to unload something while keeping their tongue firmly pressing into their cheek.
Instead, most of the comments went into high serious mode. Or, is it I who missed the boat on this post?

Posted by: DarkoV on June 3, 2005 11:23 AM

"Whether or not you like big box stores seems to be a class issue."

For me it was a beer issue. The only big box store in which I ever did much shopping was Schwegmann's in New Orleans. As soon as one entered, just past the rank of shopping carts, there was a bar serving several different brands of beer on tap. Driving a car one-handed while holding a beer is a cinch, but maneuvering (one-handed)a jumbo shopping cart piled several feet high while drinking an ice cold cup of Dixie was a challenge. Also, the traffic was worse (some people shouldn't drink and shop). Nevertheless, it was the only way to shop. Now that Schwegmann's is gone, I've tried to find a replacement. But I haven't been able to find a single Wal-mart or Sam's or Costco that serves beer. Not anywhere. Can you believe it? So no more big boxes for me. Thank heavens we can still buy daiquiris in the local movie theatres.

Posted by: bald cypress on June 3, 2005 11:33 AM

Dear Commentors,

I sincerely appreciate this opportunity to expand my understanding of 21st-Century social reality from visiting this informal and uncensored discussion on the subject of body weight, as I check in occasionally here via Armavirumque, Arts&Letters, Left2Right, etc. It illuminates the semiotic implications of so much non-verbal experience -- that my Ivy League education, over-$200K income, and a genuine interest in my fellow man at the gym and elsewhere, dissolve in the shadow of my 22W wardrobe.

Your Icky and Fat, Blimpish XXL, Lardass Porker Cyber-Colleague

What I dream of is becoming incarnate once for all and irrevocably in the form of some merchant's wife weighing eighteen stone, and of believing all she believes. My ideal is to go to church and offer a candle in simple-hearted faith, upon my word it is. Then there would be an end to my sufferings. -- "The Devil's Dream," Part IV, Book XI, Chapter 9, Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov.

Posted by: Obviously Anonymous on June 3, 2005 11:38 AM

Living in NYC as I do (and not having kids), there's a lot of generally-shared American experience that I have almost zero contact with, and that I visit as a bewildered tourist when I do see it -- cars, shopping, public schools, malls, and much more. It's really fun to hear people's thoughts and observations about all these things, and fun to see how deep the feelings often run.

The one thing that occurs to me as we gab is: maybe the mindset that many people buy into these days could be described as "loading up." It's a consumer paradise out there, and why not load up? But loading up indiscriminately as a shopper can lead to overshopping, and loading up where food's concerned can lead to overeating.

Who knows: maybe we have a biochemical tendency to load up in many ways. I have a small theory that many of us put ourselves in the same position where entertainment and the media are concerned. We're living in a state where -- instead of too little being available -- too much is. Yet we have a hard-to-resist drive to load up whenever possible. So a media-entertainment result is what you see a lot of these days: people who can barely stand being alone, or being quiet, or being electronically unstimulated, and who crave hyperstimulation from every media-entertainment experience they have. I do notice that many young 'us, for instance, seem so used to being thwacked around electronically that they barely register anything going on when a movie or magazine isn't really obvious and hyper.

A question for those offended by this posting? Is a visitor to Costco not supposed to notice how many of the people there are fat? Is it a bad thing to mention?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 3, 2005 12:07 PM

I shop at Costco and then thing I notice for myself is a warped kind of consumer psychology kicking it. While I mostly shop for things like toilet paper and Swiffer refills there, I buy some foods in bulk at Costco because if you do a Home Ec. type cost-per-ounce comparison, some things really are cheaper at Costco. So, you think to yourself, I don't really need 4 lbs. of flank steak but at these prices why the hell not! So you buy it -- and the flat of bottled water, the 36-pack of juice boxes, the tub of guacamole, the 2 lb. brick of sliced cheddar. When you get home with your bounty-in-a-reused-box, you think, I gotta consume this stuff! I have so much of it! I used to think of pre-sliced cheese as a kind of a luxury. Now, it's been completely devalued to me -- I think nothing of cutting up a piece to throw on a salad or munching on as a snack, even though I used to hold firm to the belief that pre-sliced cheese should be reserved for grilled cheese sandwiches ONLY. Ditto bottled water. Ditto paper towels -- why not use a paper towel instead of the dishcloth to dry my hands, we've got 15 rolls of the stuff taking up space in the closet! Gotta consume! The abundance makes you wasteful -- and when it comes to food items, the abundance is making us fatter.

Posted by: Vanessa Del Blowhard on June 3, 2005 12:35 PM

I've been fascinated for some time with the ability of a supermarket to aggregate certain social groups.

A coworker visited the local co-op (where I go on non-farmer's market days) and said, "I've never seen so many skinny, dirty, tree-huggers in one place!"

Then there's the Whole Foods style store. This category aggregates shiny soccer moms and hipsters on the inside and shiny SUV's in the parking lot outside.

Discount stores: bigger portions, bigger people. My tableware was imported from France, and it's all roughly half the size of the "Provence-style" tableware you see targeted for the American market. Since I haven't spent a lot of time in Europe, this was my first experience with the phenomenon. I often wonder whether tableware size affects grocery shopping decisions. Who wants to serve their guests/family a half-full bowl or a half-covered plate?

An interesting thing about discount stores is that there's also a strong upper-middle-class customer base. These people's jobs tend to relate to money management and they seek out the "best deal" so they can squeeze the savings into a bigger mortgage/car payment/home theater/lousy artwork. They have 6' freezers to take advantage of all the deals. (You may not recognize these people at the store though; a previous employer of mine used to send her nanny on all grocery-purchases. One of their favorites was a frozen dozen-bag of romaine lettuce "hearts"; the white, nutrition-free section of the plant.)

Of course, you could make these sorts of observations about any type of store, clothes stores for instance... but since "You are what you eat" it's particularly fun sport to visit various supermarkets one after the other and make sweeping generalizations. Anthropologists, welcome to America!

Posted by: Rob Asumendi on June 3, 2005 01:42 PM

At the risk of sounding elitist, I confess that I have never been in a Wal-Mart, a Costco, or even a Wegman's. I don't know why Ive just never wanted (or needed) to enter one. (Although the thought of shopping and drinking, as described above by Bald Cypress, does appeal.)

Like Michael said, it's a "generally-shared American experience" that I have no contact with. I wonder, though, if my television-less state might contribute to my relative inertia as an American consumer. When I visit a regular supermarket, I can be diverted for hours by my explorations of (to me) novel offerings in the snack food and cleaning product aisles. It's uncharted territory.

Posted by: Searchie on June 3, 2005 01:59 PM

No Michael, it's not wrong to point out an obvious fact :)

BTW, the one thing I really noticed moving to the East Coast medical-industrial complex town I now live in, is how skinny the people are relative to back home in square Midwest state.....

They basically kept the German/Dutch/Norwegian farm food diet and ditched the hard labor. With predictable results.

None of which answers your Costco question. Maybe it's regional? The only Costco I've been in was in Tuscon and it was bimodal - really, really thin and ridiculously in shape (like my brother and his wife who are the types who run mountain trails with backpacks full of weights and have veins popping out everywhere) and the more, shall we say, zaftig. No one in between, oddly enough. I think the reason people are fat in the US is that they eat too much and don't take enough excercise (shocking theory, eh?) and the Costco is an epiphenomenon - they are clustered in the driving, not walking, parts of the world.

Posted by: MD on June 3, 2005 07:04 PM

I live on the East Coast and people are slimmer here. We went to Hershey PA once and I was appalled by the number of fat people, some of them quite young, families with children in tow. They seemed like nice, pleasant people, but obviously did not care how they looked in stretch plaid shorts. The children,BTW, were of normal child size.

From what little I've read about Costco, they offer really high quality stuff for sale. For instance, their wine selections are excellent. They're not selling schlock to fat dummies.

I personally don't like to buy a whole lot of food, and the atmosphere is the pits. But a friend of mine who had two adolescent sons bought lots of food there, because the boys consumed tons of food. (They were not fat.)

To each his own.

Posted by: Miriam on June 3, 2005 08:35 PM

Okay, I have to chime in, as another "zaftig" poster who does shop at Costco from time to time.

What rankles, of course, are the assumptions made about those of us who are overweight, Costco shoppers or not. This reminds me of the time I was at dinner with colleagues, one male colleague was trying to describe someone to another male colleague, and he said, "She's a big girl, but very bright." The other "big girl" at the table and I exchanged glances . . . and kept our mouths shut. We were the juniors in that situation.

Yeah, it's humorous, this unloading. And of course, all tongue in cheek. No, no one expects you to not notice the fat people -- just don't assume you know them and their stories, okay?

Posted by: Another Obviously Anonymous on June 4, 2005 12:19 PM

"Do fat people tend to shop at CostCo? Or does shopping at CostCo tend to make people fat?"

Having been born and raised in New York City, and having lived my entire adult life in Manhattan, I've never been to a Costco (or a Walmart's, etc.). Thus I hesitated to join this conversation earlier. But given what people have already said, it seems that the impression of Costco that one gets from the media is pretty accurate -- and that Costco is not all that significantly different (for the purposes of this question) from a store that I am familiar with, "Great Eastern," an early version of a "hypermart" that existed just over the Queens / Nassau borderline. So here's my stab at an answer:

It seems to me that "obviously" the correct answer is "both of the above." But what interests ME most -- as someone interested in cities thriving in a free-market economy -- is the "fat people tend to shop at Costco" answer. In other words, of the two correct answers, the one that interests me most is the one that focuses on shoppers who are fat, elderly, and /or infirm (and the adults "burdened" with young kids) who find urban shopping difficult and stressful and so "naturally" migrate to suburban shopping environments that have popular merchandise and good prices -- with plenty of parking, along with everything (hopefully) being on a single level. I think "elistist" urbanists too often loftily dismiss or "lecture down" to those who belong to these groups ("You should really exercise, lose weight and take better overall care of yourself!") -- and therefore lose out on why urbanism and "new urbanism" are not more popular than they are.

Along these lines, I think of the experiences of my foster parents when we moved to Jamaica, Queens (neighborhoods of single-family houses that looked like those in the opening credits of "All in the Family"), from the Bronx by way of Astoria, a more urban part of Queens. By the time we moved to Jamaica they were both in their late 50s and had a number of medical problems in addition to being obese (e.g., herniated discs, hypertension, diabetes, etc.)

At first they shopped locally -- at, for instance, the nearby grocery and "candy" store where they were friends with the old-time proprietors (both of whom had apartments at the back of their stores, by the way). The other local stores (drugstore, butcher's, "King Kullen" supermarket, etc.), however, were located on the big streets that are few and far in-between in this part of Queens, and so this involved pulling a shopping cart for quite a distance (five to ten blocks?) over sidewalks, that were often very uneven because of the tree roots pushing up through the pavement. Of course making such a trip was even more difficult in the rain, or when it was bitterly cold or when there was snow or ice on the sidewalk, etc. (especially given my foster mother's lack of agility). Occcasionally, especially as time went on, my father would drive my mother to an old-fashioned supermaket (sawdust on the wood floors?), "King Kullen," and park in the store's tiny parking lot.

For really "big time" shopping (department stores, camera stores, clothing stores, a fancy bakery, etc.) one went to "downtown" Jamaica -- which hadn't yet been eviscerated by the competition from shopping malls. (In those days, downtown Jamaica was actually suprisingly substantial: three department stores [including a branch of Macy's], a Woolworth's, a Grant's, a Sears, five movie theaters [including a magnificent 3,000+ seat movie palace], and a good number of up-scale stores.)

However, for instance, when my mother went there to do some banking (remember, in those days banks were open 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., Monday through Friday -- ONLY), my father had to drop her off and then circle around the block until she came out again. When we went to the department stores, my mother had to take a bus (she never learned how to drive), which involved waiting for the bus at both ends of the trip, walking to and from the bus stop (sometimes with bulky packages), climbing into and out of the bus (not being limber, she found this difficult) under psychologically pressure ("Don't hold up the bus, lady" -- I don't thing it was said, but it was probably in her mind), etc. Plus, given that she was overweight, had hypertension and was prone to dizzyiness (and was also born in 1899) she was "afraid" of using escalators (Gertz, the big department store, was spread out on five, or so, floors) and would have to go out of her way to find and wait for an elevator.

Eventually (after about five years, or so?) my overweight and infirm foster parents discovered suburban shopping! -- and my father would drive us to "Great Eastern," just over the Queens / Nassau borderline (just about a half-mile (?) beyond "Belmont Park" racetrack). There my father would drop my mother and me off at the front door, park and then join us later. At "Great Eastern" there was not only a supermarket section, but a hardware section, a clothing section, etc., etc. Afterwards, my father could drive to the door and pick us up (along with our packages which had been loaded into shopping carts), and my mother never had to rush to climb into or off of a bus, huff and puff her way to the bus stops, wait in the bad weather for a bus -- or even deal with the dreaded escalators.

This became such a thing for them, that they wound up taking our neighbors (a mother with her grown daughter, neither of whom drove) along with us on our regularly weekly shopping trips.

Another experience, along these lines, that comes to mind, is from when I used to work as a tour director / sight-seeing guide. One of the things I would do is take my groups, many of which consisted of overweight and/or older suburban middle-Americans, on trips via the subway.

They couldn't get over all the stairs that there are in the subway system! -- and I began to realize just how difficult some subway stations can really be (just how many stories of stairs can be involved in getting to and from the trains). The trip (ordeal!) going up to ground level from the lowest subway line beneath Bloomingdale's is the one that comes immediately to mind. My guess is that it is probably the equivalent of at least six residential stories -- making the ground floor of Bloomies a veritable sixth-floor walkup when visited via that subway line! (By the way, a number of people in these groups remarked at how thin [as in athletic] people in NYC seemed to be.)

Yes, people SHOULD eat less and exercise more and take better care of themselves into old age. But I think the "sensible rightness" of such an approach also camouflages the blind spots of some urbanists and new urbanists to the "problems" that real world people (prospective residents and "customers") have with cities and new urban communities.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on June 4, 2005 03:49 PM

P.S. -- Horrors! Re-reading my post, especially the last line, I realize that my post may come off as self-righteous criticism of MB's question. I certainly didn't mean it that way!

Actually, more on my mind was the thinking of various urban planning "theorists" that seems to exhibit an airy disregard for the way real people, with real problems, experience and live in cities (including their old-time "subway suburbs") where it rains, gets bitingly cold and windy, snowy and icy, etc.

These planners and planning "theorists" seem to expect people to choose to live in cities and new urban communities no matter how difficult and undesireable people with particular problems find them, just because it is ("theoretically" and "abstractly") the "right" thing (in the eyes of planners) to do. Never mind that it gets dark, it rains, it gets bitterly cold and windy, that sidewalks become icy or slippery, etc.!

A good example of this, in my mind, is the knee-jerk reaction of "planners" against the original World Trade Center transportation / shopping concourse -- which was mindlessly characterised as underground (it was really street-level at West St.) and suburban (when, in fact, it had significant similarities to the orginal -- and very urbane -- Grand Central Terminal concourse).

However, rather than choosing to rebuild the original concourse/plaza site plan, but fixing some very real (but easily remedied) design problems (e.g., lack of stores along exterior streets, poor placement of entrances, lack of connection to the "roof-top" plaza, etc.), they've decided to throw out the baby along with the bath water. So instead of having a truly street-level (and easily accessible and negotiated) weather- protected concourse (with its "rooftop" plaza forming a street-level bridge between high-ground Church St. and the second-story WFC concourse), they are planning to build a development with a sloping street level that is sterile and institutional (although it looks lively in diagrams depicting it at 12 noon on a beautiful spring like day) and a TRULY underground (and very inconvenient for anyone -- but particularly for the infirm or those burdened with small children or luggage) transportation shopping concourse.

As a result what used to be a very convenient, virtually single-level, weather-protected trip through the site and over to Battery Park City(especially for the those with mobility problems, etc.), the trip is now going to be a winding, twisting ordeal of narrow corridors and multiple banks of escalators and elevators to the very bottom of the bathtub (about six stories?) and up again -- all just in order to get across the site with weather protection. In contrast, previously a weather-protected trip involved a single-bank of escalators at most. And without weather protection, one could actually have made across the site (either north-south or east-west) along with a shopping cart without having to cross any streets, or use any stairs or escalators at all! (And weather protection could have easily have been added with the construction of arcades along the sides of the upper "plaza" level.)

But, according to the "theories" of orthodox planners, this is all too "suburban" (although Grand Central already does the same thing), and thus not "acceptable" for New York City.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on June 4, 2005 05:07 PM

re Benjamin Hemric's comment:
You may indeed have a point about the "friendliness" of suburban-type shopping to disabled or otherwise less-than-agile shopper, especially when compared to urban-type shopping. Whenever I go to a Wal-Mart here in Suffolk County, there always seems to be a significant number of people with various mobility problems or other disabilities. Those electric scooters used by people who have difficulty walking are almost emblematic of Wal-Mart!
As for the difficulty of negotiating the NYC subway when one is in less-than-average condition, I can attest to that, having stuggled with the system several years ago when I had a sprained ankle. It's not easy.

Posted by: Peter on June 4, 2005 08:51 PM

This writing about Costco, Wal-mart and fat people has me thinking ...

I don't have many fears: snakes, public speaking, water, heights. I just can't work up a good shivery fraidy-cat feeling. But getting fat-HELP, where's a paper bag I'm getting lightheaded! I don't think I've ever realized this. As if there's a flying fat fairy that's going to sprinkle pounds on me as I sleep, cause my lifestyle is just not conducive to weight gain.

Reading a couple of the comments by anonymous overweight people ... I dunno. It's just made me wonder, maybe fat people don't realize how mildly "fearful" their presence can be. I'm confused too that they have been offended/surprised by these comments. Don't they realize what normal weight people are thinking about them? Maybe not cause I'm feeling like a schmuck for even writing this. You can say to a smoker, "that's gonna kill you," and not get lambasted. But heck, here in the south, you just NEVER mention a person's poundage. Funny, secondhand smoke-a health hazard to others, and then there's obesity-a visual nightmare to others.

Posted by: laurel on June 4, 2005 11:14 PM

One good thing about America, we never run out of people to lecture! Litter-bugs, smokers, fat people, the non-religeous, the childfree, the non-Californian...heck the list is endless. Fat people just better enjoy this period of semi-tolerance because I bet it will be coming to an end soon. They are next for the "line through the circle" treatment.

I am sure that all the rest of us in this "shining example of righteousness of a country" are working ourselves into a harried state in order to be as: skinny, fit, smoke-free, humor-free, and "healthy lifestyle" Chicklet-toothed as possible. I just marvel at how genuinely happy that kind of person is. *snert*

Posted by: Booga-Wooga on June 5, 2005 07:03 AM

I couldn't help but skim the comments on this post with a growing sinking feeling in my stomach.

This happens to me every time I realize just how offensive others find fat people (like me.)

Posted by: Peggy Nature on June 5, 2005 10:27 AM

One of my relatives goes thru very messy, almost a year dragging and expensive divorce. There is a custody over 5 year involved, which makes is particularly nasty. They live in MidWest, where supposedly both of them being far from slim isn't a big deal.

I find it amazing that out of all horrible insulting and, frankly, disgusting things the x-husband did and said to my relative the one she mentions disproportionally often is "you're getting fatter every minute" sneer.

And that included telling a 5-year-old "your mommy is a bad driver, you'll get killed if you be in the car with her" (the kid cries at the sight of the car seat now); threatening the life of her parents (documented multiple times on their phone tape); lying in court she was arrested for shoplifting and had mental problems so is not fit to have a custody of the child; false calls to police claiming physical violence (he's twice her size),etc.

Posted by: Tatyana on June 5, 2005 11:03 AM

Yikes, I never even thought how my comment might sound to someone who is overweight - it does seem rude in that light, doesn't it? Apologies, one and all. And no, I don't find the overweight an eyesore or fearsome, nothing at all like that. If you like yourself and are kind, than I can't help but think you look good. But, anyway, when is an observation cruel or dismissive and when is it simply an observation? Is the language hurtful or just pointing it out? I suppose I know the answer, or I wouldn't have apologized. (But, it's just in medical school, I saw first hand the problems obesity can cause, I rotated on a surgical service that did something called VBG, vertical banded gastroplasty - this was years ago and I don't know if it is used as a weight reducing surgery anymore. Life is really, really hard for some people.)

It's not the first time I've stuck my foot in it: when I first moved to the east coast I mentioned to someone how short everyone was compared to Iowa, like really, really short. I got told off, "what, are we trolls or something?" Honestly. I should just keep my mouth shut...

Posted by: MD on June 5, 2005 06:07 PM

MD, I didn't find your comment offensive. And of course, overweight people know what the issues are, as do smokers, drinkers, etc.

To me, the problem is that just in this thread (never mind other references you run into every day), we've been called "porkers," people who can't fit their asses in chairs, "doublewides," "blimpish," "lardass," and "a visual nightmare." Need I point out that these are not so much observations as judgments? Would you think you could get away with referring to an ethnic group in such derogatory terms? Do you talk about people with cerebral palsy or big noses as being dangerous to your aesthetic health? Hello, these are people you're talking about, and clearly some of them are people whose posts you read every day and who are likely to read your posts.

Ah, we all know that there's just something funny about fat people, and of course they all enjoy a good laugh, and, being fat and thus clearly lazy, slothful, greedy, etc. etc., deserve whatever they get.

Posted by: another obviously anonymous on June 6, 2005 12:44 AM

Apologies for any offense given by this posting. But can I peep up and try to make a small case for the value of these kinds of observations and entering into these kinds of conversations? Ineptly though we -- er, I -- sometimes do it?

First-off, maybe we can all agree that there are a zillion body types. Big people, small people, thin people, heavy people, etc. And that's a neat thing, not a bad thing. Life is full of variety, and we come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. What's not to like about that?

At the same time, there are a few questions and issues which have only come up in the last couple of decades. They're related, they're hard not to take note of, and they're genuinely interesting to think about. They're also prominent parts of life as we know it, and life as many of us wrestle with it.

One is that living patterns have changed. That includes shopping and walking patterns. Costco -- with its huge parking lots full of gigantic SUVs and with its mammoth shopping carts and big markdowns -- is part of that. Costco equals, in other words: buying in bulk, driving not walking, and placing consumer convenience above all other values.

At the same time, a new kind of fat has emerged. Studies indicate that obesity rates are 'way up, even among kids and increasingly among affluent people. Foreigners visit America and are stunned by how many fat people we have. I spent three days in a midwestern hospital a few years back, and nearly all the nurses who took care of me -- all of them really lovely people -- were move-the-furniture-out-of-the-way fat. As a friend from the south says, although southerners have always enjoyed their food and have never been shy about carrying some flesh around on them, he hadn't seen this new kind of fat person until people stopped walking and started buying in bulk and living on junk food.

We're living a new kind of life, in other words --and maybe we can agree (maybe not) that it's symbolized by Costco. Maybe we can also agree (maybe not) that one consequence of the new kind of life we're leading seems to be a new kind of fat.

There may very well be a lot of connections between these two facts. We aren't walking. We're eating a lot of junk food. We value driving convenience and shopping convenience ... maybe a little too highly. The whole complex of factors encompassed by the idea of "buying and selling in bulk" may have something to do with why we battle so much with fat these days. It may not, but then again maybe it does.

I'm often tempted to spin this out a little metaphorically. I work in the media biz, and I see parallel developments in our media environment. As far as the media go, we're living in a very different state than people were only a few decades ago. We no longer have three or four TV stations, but hundreds. We no longer share top 40 radio; we can tune into tons of segmented music markets. We no longer rely on a couple of dozen magazines, but are able to easily access hundreds and hundreds of publications, whether on paper or online. Not to mention the web's other tempatations, and not to mention the kinds of design developments (spinning imagery, lotsa color, dancing typefaces, etc) that we like to keep track of on this blog. This new media environment is great in one sense -- it's a media cornucopia! What's not to like? But this new environment also seems to play a role in a lot of conditions many of us may not be crazy about: decreased reading, increased inability to think straight, kids who are jaded about everything by the time they're 12, the sexualizing of children, the degradation of culture generally. Computers have souped up movie rhetoric -- ie., the swoopy whooshiness of the imagery, the crunching ka-thumpiness of the soundtracks -- tremendously. But can anyone say that today's movies are really better than movies of previous eras?

Interesting questions: Is more always better? Is convenience always desirable? It's very difficult to argue claim that more choice is bad. Yet more choice is clearly ... at the very least a challenge. How to balance and manage these new circumstances of overabundance, whether of food, of shopping, or of the media? How to negotiate our ways through our lives without doing too much damage to our health and our brains? Most of us probably don't want to withdraw from modern life entirely, yet find it distractingly hard to interact with modern life in ways that don't leave us feeling exhausted and overstuffed.

I'm not sure anyone has any of this terribly well figured-out. How could we? After all, superabaundance is a new state of being for almost everyone. Perhaps only the aristocracy wrestled with similar challenges in previous eras. Our biologies don't help; we seem to be programmed to stuff ourselves at every opportunity. And the general American ethic doesn't promote self-restraint. We're Americans. We like to rock out and help ourselves to the goodies. Yet look what we're doing to ourselves.

Trading observations, tips, and impressions about this state and these topics strikes me as a good idea. We've all noticed these new conditions and challenges; we're all contending with them. And there's no reason for anyone to be self-righteous about any of this. We didn't create it. We're just coping with it.

But why not admit that these things are facts, and that none of us is a master of these facts? Friedrich von Blowhard wrote a posting about his struggle with weight, for example. If I'm lucky enough not to struggle with my weight -- thank you for that favor, lord -- media-overstimulation (and general brain-addle) is something I'm certainly very vulnerable to. I love information and stories; I love words, images, and sounds. How to keep myself from overdosing on today's hyper-convenient pleasures, and from rendering myself idiotic? I fall victim to the temptations of easy and convenient media stimulation all the time, and far more often than is good for me. I've got my tricks and methods for minimizing the damage; using the digital video recorder instead of watching TV the usual way certainly helps. But my good resolutions often crumble. There I find myself late at night, leafing through magazines and books and surfing the web while listening to Itunes. So I'm eager to swap impressions and tips.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 6, 2005 02:00 AM

I too am guilty of generalizations and putting people in a box which fits my preconceptions. To me, people at Costco seem like family oriented folks looking for a good value for their hard-earned money. I recently had to endure an evening at my wifes freinds house, where we all had to listen to why Trader Joes was such a nice hip place to by foodstuffs from. Had to hear about the 'free range' chicken we were eating and the sundried cranberry sauce with Cyprian capers, etc... Then the truley hip woman told us how the 3 dollar bottle of wine we were drinking was "To DIE for!" She tells my wife she refuses to be caught shopping at Costco or Wal-Mart. I've always thought the Trader Joes crowd was a bunch of phony, yuppie, elitists.

Posted by: Sam Boogliodemus on June 6, 2005 07:14 PM

I remember shopping at that very same Great Eastern Mills store (in the Village of Elmont) of which Mr Hemric writes. It was in the early '60s and I was five or six when my mom placed my little sister in the cart basket and walked off to get something. I pushed the cart over and scared the life out of sis, though amazingly she wasn't hurt.

It didn't put her off big box stores, though-- now she lives in Appalachia and goes to Wal-Mart and all the other commerce barns. As for her size, well-- I won't be pushing her cart over today!

Posted by: Reg Csar on June 7, 2005 01:23 AM

It may be that even the "health issues" of fat serve and spring from the stereotype. See Scientific American June 2005

And my objections were not to the initial post. It's actually an interesting question. Just review the early comments for, not primarily culpable bad manners, but the pervasiveness of the self-congratulation and visceral revulsion and dismissal on the subject of body weight. This is far below the level of apology.

Posted by: continuing anonymous on June 7, 2005 10:27 AM

My husband and I shopped for a year at Costco because it was different and wanted to see what they offered. I enjoyed not having to shop for soap every month...but we didn't really save much since we can't use most items in bulk. But to answer your question- I didn't see many "fat" people shopping at our local one, and neither of us had gained weight during our membership year.

Posted by: Sasha on June 19, 2005 12:56 PM

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