On September 5th, 2013 during a walk from my apartment in Astoria, Queens, I visited a small park behind the Costco on Vernon Blvd for the first time. It sits right between Socrates Sculpture Park and Rainy Park on the banks of the East River.
As I walked through, I immediately felt it was an odd, unique public space. Technically, it was a private park, I believe, but openly accessible to the public. The bright red benches matching the red Costco branding contrasted the typically green or wood benches you find at other public parks, and gave the park a bright glow. There were a few people fishing, and a handful of others hanging out on the benches, with a few joggers passing through.
It felt like an anomaly in the landscape of public spaces in New York City. It didn’t fit into my existing mental map or expectations for a park. When this happens out on a walk, I take note. These places have a way of stimulating the imagination, and making connections you might not expect.
Walking: Long urban walks allow you observe and experience how different neighborhoods and commercial districts interconnect with the landscape. You encounter a variety of public spaces of varying sizes, each with their own function and vibe, which directly flows from the neighboring areas, and change depending on the time of day.
I don’t know why they chose to put a Costco in this location, but adding the park was logical given the location on the river. But it felt incongruent in relationship to adjacent parks, and other green spaces along the river.
Socrates Park is a small sculpture park and major attraction (at least for art people!) in Western Queens. On the other side is Rainey Park, a more traditional neighborhood park with a playground, basketball courts and picnic areas.
So, on the one side, you have people visiting to experience high culture and then on the other you have neighborhood residents visiting recreational activities. In the middle, you have the Costco Park which mainly attracts visitors who are there to shop, and a few people passing by, or fishing.
Capitalism: I have never shopped at a Costco. You need a membership and my understanding is that your goal is to buy in bulk and since I never owned a car in NYC and lived alone, it didn’t seem like a logical fit.
From what I’ve absorbed through the internet ether, Costco might be just as much known for its rotisserie chicken, hot dogs and pizza as for its affordable prices.
When I walked through the park I would often see people eating on the red benches, enjoying the views. I wondered if this was a ritual many of them looked forward to during their Costco visits. Back then I didn’t know, but now I am certain of it just by browsing some of the TikToks I have seen.
At some point, I will need to try this Costco pizza, and preferably eat it in a parking lot by myself, enjoying a view of a river.
Photography: When you spend a significant amount of time making and thinking about photographs, you develop a lot of ideas for projects or series. This is part of the process.
After my initial visit to Costco Park, I started to think about developing a project around it, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say, or if there would be enough material to make something compelling.
I think the traditional documentary idea would be to make portraits of the people that visited the park and try to develop an understanding of why they were there, which probably would lead to some interesting insights. Mixed in with the portraits, you would show photographs similar to what I am using to illustrate this article.
Another approach would be to make candid photographs, and I did initially create a few along those lines. But over the years, my interest in that type of photography waned so I abandoned it, and chose not use any for this article because then I would need to write too much about the ethics of candid photography, and I am not prepared for that just yet.
Both of these approaches required photographing people and that was just not something I was interested in pursuing. I lacked the skillset to make something compelling, and sure, you could say that pushing yourself and feeling uncomfortable is what helps you evolve. That’s a valid point, and I do believe it but in this instance, my intuition strongly said to go in another direction, so I just made the photographs that came natural to me.
Idea: My first few visits to the Costco Park provoked thoughts about true crime stories. The strange vibes I were picking up made it feel like the type of setting where something bad might happen.
Perhaps it’s because of the transitory nature of the space, or maybe I have unconsciously developed a negative perception of Costco. I think part it also has to do with the large empty parking late that sits between the road and the park. It creates a sense of isolation and the type of place where crimes might occur at night in a densely populated city, although there were definitely security cameras around to deter any nefarious activity.
I did some preliminary research but couldn’t find any real crimes that have happened in the park. That’s good! Nobody has been harmed.
Then I started to think about creating a fictional crime story. I have toyed with that idea for a long time, probably born from watching too much true crime.
True Crime: Our culture is saturated with crime stories. In the last decade, the interest in true crime has exploded and you can find stories in every medium: TV shows, documentaries, podcasts, books, movies.
I think we’re fascinated with crime and violence because they are deviations from standard behavior, and difficult for us to understand since we’re most likely not violent individuals.
We want to know why crimes occur and who has been victimized. And perhaps most disturbingly, we want to know about the perpetrators, the criminals and the killers.
When you watch true crime shows, you’ll start to pick up on the typology of motivations for murder: money, jealously, revenge, obsession, sociopathy.
From my understanding, most murders happen between people that know each other: relatives, friends, spouses, lovers, and co-workers. The instances of stranger murders are rare, and that’s probably why they end up receiving so much attention.
After watching enough, true crime you start to notice the patterns play out. It becomes redundant, and you can fairly easily figure out what happened. Although, these shows do a good job of building suspense, and sometimes there are surprises, or the unique stories that can hold your attention.
I haven’t watched many true crime shows in the last few years. Beyond the repetitiveness, what made me re-evaluate this part of my media consumption was that the victims were often women.
I felt that by watching these stories, and absorbing them, that I was contributing to the continued desensitization we have for violence against women. Choosing not to watch true crime is probably near the bare minimum you can do to fight the patriarchy.
But I do think perhaps we’d benefit from taking a different approach to telling crime stories, perhaps something that focuses more on the root causes, and the victims, rather than the gory details and the criminals.
The one show I will still watch from time to time is ‘Fear They Neighbor.’
This I find particularly terrifying because it’s so relatable. Neighbors inhabit an interesting place in our social lives. They are not family, but sometimes friends, often not, but familiar enough to be more than strangers.
Living in close proximity to people can lead to tensions and conflict. And in our society, sometimes those tensions can boil over into senseless violence.
My advice is to be nice to your neighbors, no matter how annoying they might be.
Process: Ask many experienced photographers, and you’ll learn they probably have dozens of abandoned ideas or sketches. Sometimes you start something, and then once you make enough photographs, you realize there’s nothing interesting developing.
Or you might make a few photographs and not notice anything until years later when you make a connection with another idea or photograph.
I continued to visit Costco Park over the years, making photographs, and then filing them away in my archive. I have done this with several other places as well, and sometimes that’s just part of the process. You make photographs to learn how you feel about a subject, and then go from there.
Sometimes the photographs will help you refine your ideas and become part of a larger project.
Sometimes they may just die in the archive. No loss really. Photographs are easy enough to make.
When photographs are stored away in the archive they take on a new life, often evolving and changing as you continue to develop and make new photographs. Sometimes they will come alive again in a new way.
Saint Cloud: A few weeks ago, there was a hostage situation at a Wells Fargo up the road from my apartment. Over the course of the afternoon, dozens of people gathered in the parking lot of the Costco.
It’s a recent addition to Saint Cloud, built on what was a large wooded green space next to the Stearns County History Museum. The City of Saint Cloud sold the land to Costco and ended up using the money to build and maintain some other parks in the city. As you can see from the Google screen grab below, they haven’t updated the imagery to include the Costco yet!
Behind the Costco and Museum, you’ll find what remains of Heritage Park. It offers a few nice wooded trails around a large pond. Since it is right near my apartment, I have walked through it numerous times, making photographs of course, and filing them away in the archive.
I have done some research, and haven’t found any stories about crimes in the park. But I find this connection between Costco and parks to be interesting. Now I am waiting for the next clue.
Does your Costco have a park by it? If so, drop me a line: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Is a Costco Membership Actually Worth It? [Wirecutter]
- Every Item At The Costco Food Court, Ranked [Mashable]
- Why We Love—and Need to Leave Behind—Dead Girl Stories [LitHub]
- The Best True Crime Documentaries You Haven’t Binged Yet [Buzzfeed]
I’m a photographer, writer and strategist from Saint Cloud, Minnesota. This is my newsletter on art, walking, and mindfulness. Each issue, I share new work from my projects and try to make connections between ideas, articles and people that fascinate me. You can email me at email@example.com or follow me on Instagram & Twitter