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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

The American Nightmare Mall

The promise of New Jersey’s American Dream Mall had occupied my childhood imagination. What I found there one snowy day in 2021 was nothing but an American nightmare.

During the 2020 lockdown, to get some relief from the isolation of living alone, I spent a lot of time driving aimlessly around Northern New Jersey. Usually, I went out without a destination in mind. Quite often I found myself driving past Route 3 in the Meadowlands, a strip of wetlands inhabited by sporting stadiums and marred by pollution and excessive development, and perhaps best known in New Jersey lore for being the place where union boss Jimmy Hoffa is supposedly buried. I reflected a lot on my childhood growing up in a rural-suburban town an hour west of New York City that had nothing but a few lakes and an opioid crisis.

On these drives, I often passed a newly opened monstrosity called the American Dream Mall in East Rutherford. My thoughts would return to 2004, when I was ten years old. This was before the mall existed, when there was just speculative, excited talk amongst my peers about a new “supermall” coming soon. It was going to have an indoor ski slope and would be right next to Giants Stadium, home of my favorite football team. The mall was going to be, by far, the most thrilling place near to us. All year we wondered when it was coming and when we would get to take a class trip there. Forget interactive learning at our planned trip to the Liberty Science Center—we wanted snow tubing and cotton candy.

Fast forward roughly sixteen years. Five governors, four presidents, ten warmest years on record, two economic recessions, and one global pandemic later—in this time, I had grown up (somewhat), lived on my own, traveled the country in a rock band, found and lost love time and again, and seen a thing or two—and finally, the oversized shopping center was open. Over a decade and a half, the project had lost investor after investor, went through several name changes, caused the deaths of two construction workers, and remained a half-built eyesore for Manhattan commuters—or as Chris Christie put it, “a disgrace to the eyes as you drive up the New Jersey Turnpike.” Like most New Jersey residents, I had long ago given up any expectation that the mall would be built. But after an overly drawn out and tumultuous construction, the mall of my childhood dreams, now named the “American Dream,” had opened.

The original “American Dream”—the promise of equal opportunity for everyone and wealth for all who work hard enough—is a fiction. This “American Dream” is increasingly unattainable for the vast majority of Americans. The top 1% of Americans own 15 times more wealth than than the bottom 50%. Americans owe almost two trillion in student debt. The federal minimum wage has stagnated since 2009, stuck at $7.25 an hour, while the cost of living becomes more expensive every year. Over the course of the pandemic alone, U.S. billionaires have seen their wealth increase by roughly 70%.

Demand for products is manufactured by the corporations that sell them, then propagandized to us through the media outlets that they own and advertise on. We are a gaslit culture, coerced into and force fed a way of life that serves nothing but the bottom line for the richest few.

What’s more, the majority of our elected officials have been corrupted by corporate money. Time after time, they prop up the institutions that profit off of endless consumerism and debt paid by people trying to earn the unattainable American Dream. Although the playland of politicians, Washington, D.C., is not actually on swampland, the “metaphor gets its clout from the notion that Washington was built in an actual physical swamp, whose foul landscape has somehow nourished rotten politics.” The American Dream Mall, built by corporate greed despite public concerns, exemplifies this “swamp” phenomenon perfectly, and provides a fitting symbol of how the idea of the “dream” is a cruel euphemism for corrupt capitalism in fetid swampland.

I have long outgrown the childhood version of myself that could find a place like the American Dream Mall amusing. But at some point in 2020, the isolation of lockdown had started to get the best of me. I found myself curious, after all these years, to see the inside of the American Dream Mall. I remembered how excited I once was for the place to be built. I decided to do something for my inner child, to disprove the cynic in the adult me and reaffirm the innocence of my younger self. As unappealing as I found the mall to be each time I passed by it, I decided it would be wrong not to at least give the finished product a look. Yes, the mall was a complete waste of material resources and space, and it glorified the consumerist tendencies ultimately destroying our planet. But, similar to the way in which tragedy often becomes spectacle, I decided I wanted a clear look into the cold plastic heart of an empire in decline. Part of me wanted to believe in the dream, even if for a few hours. And so, on a snowy winter day in early 2021, I finally worked up the gumption to make a visit.

A Nightmare Decades in the Making

The story of how the American Dream mall came to be begins in 1994, the year I was born. The Mills Corporation first came up with the idea of a Meadowlands mall in the mid-90’s. Due to EPA restrictions and conflicting priorities with nearby stadiums, the mall’s original concept, to be built on a protected conservation area, never came to be. A few years later, the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority was on the lookout for a developer to start a project next to the Continental Airlines Arena after word got out that the New Jersey Nets might no longer use the Arena as its home. The Authority feared a loss of occupancy and needed something new that would draw people to the complex. Having had success with their “Xanadu” mall in Barcelona, Mills Corp. jumped on the opportunity, partnering with Mack-Cali group, and broke ground in 2004, expecting to open their new American version of Xanadu’s doors a couple years later. Somewhere during the early stages of development, things were not going as planned, and Mills sold the entire project to Colony Capital in 2006. In true New Jersey fashion, this is where things got shady. Missed payments caused lenders to withdraw, withdrawing lenders caused retailers to drop out of the plans, and at one point, a wall even collapsed on the indoor ski slope due (ironically enough) to record snowfall, causing even more delays.

But the more the place failed to get built, the more money the state and investors wanted to sink into it. Over $1 billion in taxpayer money, along with several billion more in private loans, have been spent over the course of its construction. Even with the obvious decline in retail sales across the country, the powers that be wanted this mall to exist.

There had been some resistance from local municipalities along the way, and this prolonged the development of the project. Local mayors and townspeople worried about increased traffic and pollution to the already congested area, which is an important ecological home to 125 bird species and is already prone to flooding. But regardless of public opinion, the insatiable appetite of local governments, private developers, and retailers pushed on, though nobody seemed to believe it would actually be a success. After years of stagnation and loss of public interest, by 2011, multinational development and finance corporation Triple Five had taken reins of the incomplete project. Triple Five Worldwide, creator of the two largest malls in North America (The Mall of America in Bloomington, MN and the West Edmonton mall in Alberta, Canada) was finally able to make the impossible happen.

To push the project over the finish line, Triple Five made an easy payment of $20 million to the mayor of East Rutherford, James Casella, for his town’s new police station, and an issuance of millions of dollars in tax exempt bonds to nearby municipalities. Finally, with local governments paid off, the American Dream mall was open for business in late 2019—almost two decades since the first construction workers broke ground and just months before a global pandemic was about to hit. The developers giving out all of this money presumably did not foresee the financial trouble they were about to face.

In 2020, Triple Five defaulted on their Mall of America monthly mortgage payments twice. To add to it, they pledged 49% of The Mall of America and Edmonton Mall as collateral for the American Dream Mall’s construction loans. Now, multiple construction companies have filed unpaid liens against Triple Five, stating they are owed millions in construction fees. But when interviewed about the mall by the New York Times in 2019, Triple Five’s president said that:

“anyone who doubted the project’s viability should remember that [the company president’s] family used its other mall properties as collateral and ‘invested substantial amounts of our own personal money into this project.’ ‘We believe we are visionaries,’ he said. ‘And sometimes to be a visionary, to step outside of the norm, you have to think big.’”

Some might think it strange or delusional to say that it is “visionary” to build another energy-guzzling mall and entertainment center in the midst of a climate crisis. But such cynics clearly do not understand the American Dream.

In the Mall

Having just watched 2001: A Space Odyssey, I entered the mall inspired to think of it as being a little like the film’s spaceship, with its sinister HAL 9000 computer—a giant hubristic artificially intelligent vessel that took on a mind of its own and refused to shut off. (I was under no illusion that by going to the mall, I might find the “power down” button that would stop the ship from crashing.) I weaved my way through small crowds of skiers and snowboarders fully suited, ready to hit the “slope.”1 It struck me that humanity is on the path to messing up the planet so badly that maybe someday the only places to see snow will be at indoor ski slopes. Will the elite who escape to Mars replicate northeastern winters in their space pod cities? But maybe, I thought, and subtly hoped, I was wrong about it all. Maybe there would be something magical about this place that I could not foresee. I would reserve my judgment until I had seen the whole thing, all three million square feet of it.

Entering the retail section of the mall—which takes up about 45% of the total square footage—I noticed an eerie emptiness. More than half the space was still unused. Towering ceilings overhead, arching over three generous floors, absorbed echoes from the small crowds. The swarms of masked patrons made their ways in different directions. There were hundreds of people, but it felt like much less. The place was monumental, built for tens of thousands, not mere hundreds (turns out it was getting only a quarter of its expected traffic at the time)—and these were masked faces and empty eyes. Muffled voices lost in the massive expanse of it all created a sort of white noise, a static. People wandered aimlessly, it seemed. I felt everyone shared an unexpressed feeling of not knowing why they were there.

The mall was like Las Vegas, an atmosphere similar to a casino. Bright fluorescent lights, people scuttling about rapidly, absurd overstimulation provoking suspension of disbelief. There was no room for thought. Your surroundings did the thinking for you. I could have sworn they were pumping oxygen in through the vents. Like all good casinos, its effectiveness was in making you believe anything could happen at any moment, forcing you to be present in its all-encompassing chaotic plastic fantasy. It is only fitting that the centerpiece of the mall was a large fountain pool with a grassy knoll island, covered in Alice in Wonderland-esque mushrooms and magic gnome statues. It all seemed very out of place. As I observed the centerpiece, trying to figure out what was off about it, over the loudspeaker I heard a gentleman’s voice interrupt the music that had been quietly playing in the background: “If you are not feeling well, please go home and dream with us another day.”

Just then I realized that this wasn’t just Triple Five’s dream, or governor Phil Murphy’s dream, or Mayor James Casella’s dream— this was our dream. We, too, the mallgoers, were supposed to contribute to the fantasy. The voice projected the workings of a handful of real estate developers and politicians onto the collective hopes of everyone at the mall that day.

In a sense, the voice on the speaker was right. This scenario was something I could have only imagined in a dream. Retail shopping in a 3 million square foot mall in the midst of a global pandemic, while hundreds of thousands of people were dying, was, in fact, surreal. This was not just a reminder, but a coercive suggestion provoking you to think that it was up to us, the individual, to dream. We were a society of individuals, not a collective. Thus, it was our individual responsibility to solve the pandemic. Forget about the immense systemic failings of our government and institutions to address the root causes of why they collectively failed to prevent and respond to the catastrophic plague we were living through. We were being told to navigate ourselves out of this, all while remaining loyal consumers.

So, if you are not feeling well, go home—just don’t give up on the dream. So much for reserving my judgments. If only I could just believe. Yet, I couldn’t help but think Triple Five knew something that I still did not. The ostentatiousness of my surroundings, the glow-in-the-dark mini golf, the socially distanced shopping for pointless items manufactured on the other side of the planet by people being paid slave wages… But I didn’t want to let my inner child down. I wanted to  find some “magic,” to not lapse fully into cynicism. If my presumptions about the greed and carelessness on which the mall was built upon were right, if this place was truly as pointless as I thought it was, it was a tragic end to the dream I actually did hold as a ten-year-old. Perhaps the theme parks on the other side of the mall would be better.

I made my way deeper into the maze. Signs pointing to Angry Birds mini golf guided my journey. (Angry Birds, my north star.) I remembered a quote I had read from an executive at Triple Five when asked about the mall: “It would have been much better if American Dream would have burned down or a hurricane had hit it, financially, because we would have been covered by insurance.” As I walked past empty unopened stores and closed off vacant sections of the mall, I got the feeling I was in a movie in which the actors had no interest in participating. In fact, the “actors” were secretly hoping the movie would never actually be released. I remembered the gnomes and  the mushrooms, and that there had been something off about them. I realized what it was. They were all off-white, as if they were generic unpainted arts and crafts projects just picked up from Michael’s and carelessly placed on a turf island. No one had even bothered to give them any color.

Just then I looked up and there he was, in all his glory and unequivocal grandeur: Shrek. A huge replica of the green ogre riding a tube down a water slide towered over the people beneath, grinning somewhat menacingly. I was so caught up in my thoughts I hadn’t realized that I had made it to the other side of the mall. A Nickelodeon theme park and a Dreamworks water park made up the massive expanse in front of me. They were immense, comprising over 50% of the mall’s entire square footage. There were huge glass dome parks that looked like a scene straight out of the movie Bio-Dome, but instead of plants, the small stadium-sized dome water park, closed off to the public, was filled with huge water slides and wave pools. It was glorious, yet deeply unsettling in its overbearing size.

An intelligent species would utilize this immense space and vast amount of resources and materials for something more geared toward human and environmental needs. In fact, the man credited with designing the modern American shopping mall, Viennese architect and socialist Victor Gruen, never intended for shopping malls to be anything like they are. He was:

“a strict opponent of shopping centers that offered nothing beyond consumerism; he was a champion of holistic, environmentally friendly city planning focusing on the needs of individuals. Shopping malls were conceived to be third spaces, social gathering places in addition to the established social environments of home and work. Gruen hoped to recreate the experience of shop-lined streets mixed with cafes and restaurants, just as he remembered from his native Vienna.”

Instead of building this Dream mall, which sells us more things we don’t need, we could house the homeless, build huge greenhouses for growing food, build a hospital, design the space around publicly determined needs, or, better yet, just leave the area, the swampland, natural. Contrary to the human-centric notion of swamps as ugly, unlivable places—places that throughout history had to be “drained” and controlled and dominated by humans—swamps are important areas of biodiversity that we would do well to preserve and protect (especially since increased development over wetlands contributes to flooding).

Ah, but this is what America does best: spend decades’ worth of resources and taxpayer dollars on things only meant to serve wealthy investors that no one else really needs. No one except ten-year-old me, back in 2004, before I knew what things really were.

But ten-year-olds eventually grow up. They eventually leave childhood to become adults, to realize the world doesn’t revolve just around them, that they have to take other people’s considerations into account. The mall wasn’t created by ten-year-olds. It was created by a society whose culture and values are like those of children in that these values seem not to have evolved past some primitive and environmentally destructive phase, that of consumer capitalism, which operates in a perpetual state of profit seeking despite obvious harm to humans and all other forms of life on earth. I thought the mall would show me my inner child, or nurture my inner child. Instead it reminded me how fucked we are if we don’t find a way to evolve beyond this toxic way of organizing our society around profit.

Shrek and Tony Soprano

As bashful and rude as he may have been, Shrek had many redeemable qualities. He was humble, courageous, kept to himself, never asked for more than what he deserved, and in the end, was willing to adapt and make altruistic decisions that were best for everyone around him. Shrek may be featured prominently in the Mall, but the culture that created the Mall has more in common with Tony Soprano, the main character in HBO’s The Sopranos, set in New Jersey. Tony has a deep-seated denial of the past and an unwillingness to change that fuels his narcissistic pursuit of personal gain. Tony, always referencing the values of 1950s America to justify his backwards, sociopathic personal attitude, has zero self-awareness. For example, he tells his daughter, Meadow, “You see, out there, it’s the 1990s, but in this house, it’s 1954,” when scolding her about trying to have a conversation about sex. Like the American Dream Mall, he lives in delusion about his sociopathy, convincing himself he has values.

At least Tony’s life had an ending. An abrupt one. Whatever happened in The Sopranos’ famous cut to black final scene, the bandage was ripped off. But the developers of the Dream mall want 30 seasons. The American Dream will persist, whatever happens to us or the climate, just as future developments will get pushed through in the endless pursuit of profit.

That’s why this colossal New Jersey mall exemplifies the cold plastic heart of our declining empire so well. Most of us, regardless of our position on the political spectrum, share a feeling that things are not right in our country, but the two political parties in power simply refuse to do anything substantial about this state of affairs. There is no end to the ever-expanding corporate bottom line that many of our institutions rely on for funding, and what else is this mall but a physical embodiment of the greed our nation has been promoting and rewarding for decades? It is nothing new. Profit and military aggression will always come before basic human needs. This is why we have little to no ability to collectively handle a pandemic. This is why Joe Biden is still bombing Syria. Taxpayer dollars will always be carelessly spent on things that don’t serve taxpayers.

As I left the mall, I couldn’t help but feel a sort of grief. Not just for the innocence of my 5th-grade self, but for pre-pandemic life, whatever it was. Deep down I knew this place was wrong, and it was painful to witness its careless, shameless, wasteful grandiosity. Visitors who weren’t feeling well were told to go home and dream another day. They weren’t being wished safety, and once they got out of the mall, they’d go back to their lives, which might or might not include health care or the ability to actually isolate or otherwise stay safe during the pandemic. Mainly, mallgoers were being reminded to keep consuming.

I was healthy, but living paycheck to paycheck, with little extra spending money—not the ideal consumer. I did not manage to find the “power down” button. I didn’t transcend into an eternal being and witness the ever-expanding creation of infinity, as David Bowman did after defeating HAL in 2001. I just walked around aimlessly for a bit, convincing myself I was looking for answers to questions I already knew the answer to.

What I was really looking for was something to validate the innocence in myself. Going to the mall, then, was a coping mechanism I used amidst a shut down world that I felt could collapse any day. I was hoping that by diving into the belly of the beast, I would find some glimmering speck of hope to convince me that things weren’t as bad as they seemed. I didn’t find that. What I found was a giant dead zone made up of expensive materials that will probably outlast our civilization—as long as it doesn’t collapse into the swamp it was built on. A modern Atlantis, eventually. Going to the mall did provide me with closure, though, the freedom to mourn the loss of my childhood innocence and the loss of my faith in the American Dream. It also gave me the freedom to imagine a society that’s different from ours, one in which we actually take care of each other and the world around us.

  1. As one NJ man put it in an op-ed: “As a historian and avid skier, what I find so jarring about the American Dream Meadowlands is the dissonance of its name and the timing of its completion. Its doors are opening just as malls around the country are shuttering, and as economic inequality and climate change have rendered the postwar vision of the American Dream—modest but real prosperity, a better life for all and little luxuries like the Saturday ski trips that brightened my youth—ever harder to attain for ordinary Americans.” 

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