An Afternoon of the American Dream

Tell me, what is the most cursed building you can think of? Is it an abandoned church with an overgrown graveyard beside it? The husk of a restaurant that closed due to fire a decade ago and now just sits lonely on its corner lot? The massive Victorian house in your town that can’t seem to keep an owner for more than a couple of years at a time? No, the most cursed building I know is a bright white shiny new mega mall that looms ominously over the highway it was built closely alongside. I present to you the American Dream.

No, it’s not an ironic joke, that is actually the name of the mall. It’s not the first name that it had (I’m partial to the former name Xanadu), as the place has a tortured history of beginning construction mere years before the 2008 financial crisis, being passed along a chain of developers, and periodically having all work on it stop for one reason or another. (If you’d like more detail its Wikipedia page is extensive and well-sourced.) Construction started when I was 13 years old and the mall only partially opened in the fall of 2019, months before I turned 29. I think we can all think of something that began in early 2020 which made it quite an unfortunate time to be opening a new retail facility. Oh, and it was only painted white about a month before the first part of it opened. For most of its development it was “an offense to the eyes as you drive up the turnpike” as my former governor Chris Christie once put it. I hate to agree with him about anything, but in this case I did. Do you understand now why I call it cursed?

It’s certainly not a place that I had much desire to visit. The American Dream isn’t that long a drive from where I live, but can only be accessed via a section of the New Jersey Turnpike that is more like a tangled bowl of spaghetti than a highway. This section of the Turnpike is also one of the major roads into New York City, so the congestion alone makes the area an unpleasant drive if you choose your travel time poorly. Another issue is that the mall is part of the Metlife Stadium complex (aka, where the Giants and Jets play football and where a lot of concerts are held) and that is its own godawful nightmare to navigate even with GPS on a non-event day. One of New Jersey’s stereotypes is that it is a land of many shopping malls, and at least in my part of the state that is not a lie. I can think of four malls that I can reach more conveniently than the American Dream, so I really had no reason to make the trek out there.

But then the universe handed me a reason, in the form of my friend Shannon, who visited me from Boston early in June. She had seen me talking about (read: dunking on) the mall on Twitter a few weeks before after Jezebel published this article about it that I really loved and she wrote to me, “when I visit this is a must see.” I replied, “yeah, sure, we could give it a try, lol.” And so on the final full day of her visit, after only a slight navigational snafu caused by the aforementioned spaghetti highways, we walked into the American Dream, dodging people riding around on little rolling mechanical animals at speeds that made me worry I would be hurt if one of them barreled into me.

The first proper space we encountered was a big round atrium of a room ringed by upper levels of what I assumed were supposed to be occupied stores, but which were largely just spaces covered by white panels. Dominating the center of this space was the first of the many displays that honestly just seemed to exist solely as social media photo ops meant to make the mall look hip and cool. However, I thought this first one was very ugly despite its positive message of LOVE. As we proceeded down the hall we soon came upon a courtyard with a garden that was very pretty and also probably mostly fake. It was also super fucking hot in there because of the sun streaming through the magnifying glass-like dome overhead.

While the vast majority of the American Dream is too much vacant retail space covered with hideous, slightly unsettling Instagrammable murals while they wait for tenants to fill them, there was another strange phenomenon happening the day that we visited. Many of the stores that had occupants were closed. I was confused for a moment, but then it dawned on me: it was Sunday and I had just discovered that this monument to excess was built in Bergen County, only adding to its cursed aura. Bergen County, New Jersey is a very special place where there are laws preventing the sale of certain goods on Sundays, including some items commonly sold in shopping malls, such as clothing. Luckily we weren’t trying to shop, just wanted to ogle the monstrosity, so the stores being closed wasn’t a disappointment to us. Shannon even pointed out that it was probably to our benefit — more people in the mall were masked up than I expected considering the governor had just lifted the mask mandate the week before, but surely the stores being closed lowered the total amount of people visiting the mall the day we were there.

So you may be asking, if most of the stores are closed then why not entirely close this mall on Sundays? Because, friends, there are ~*~attractions~*~ there. There is minigolf, which, ok. Lego has sponsored a children’s play area. Fine. The mall has an aquarium. Why does the mall have an aquarium? There is an ice skating rink confusingly located beneath another one of those glass dome sun roofs that just traps the sun and turns it into heat.

There is the indoor ski slope which gives the building its unique shape. Nickelodeon has an amusement park which we couldn’t see much of because you have to take an elevator down into the pit where it lives and they (probably wisely) don’t let you get close to the railing that overlooks it. You can ride a water slide in the Dreamworks water park while a massive balloon of shirtless Shrek in swim trunks watches over you with vaguely ominous excitement as people peer through the gaps in the window decals to see all of the “fun” they are missing out on.

For the record, I can’t even begin to comprehend how two major media corporations got drawn into this mall in East Rutherford, New Jersey. My only guess is that in addition to local visitors, they’re hoping tourists visiting New York City will take the train over. At one point I thought, “I can’t wait to see the Defunctland episodes that are gonna be made about this place someday,” but in hindsight it feels kind of petty and rude of me to want these places to fail when they’ve barely had a chance to begin thanks to the plague.

The only thing in the mall that I truly loved in an unironic way was the very big candy store where they sell just about any type of penny candy you could think of, typical packaged treats, and also lollipops as long and thick as a child’s arm.

Despite all of the shiny new everything on display, there was something a bit haunting about the American Dream. As I mentioned, there are acres of empty storefronts with weird mural coverings on the lower levels or blank facades in “don’t notice the mall is mostly empty and unfinished” white on upper floors of the mall. But there are also large areas of the mall (mostly parts of the 3rd floor and the entire 4th) that are just blocked off with polite little ropes or massive chest height wooden barricades which are also painted white, likely in the very vain hope that people will not notice or think too much of them. We even spotted an escalator going up to a temporary ceiling, like a modern version of the Winchester Mystery House.

We spent just under two hours at the mall despite its large size, leaving just in time for our parking to still be free. We got lost trying to leave the Meadowlands complex because one of the exit roads was blocked off for seemingly no reason and wound up getting onto the Turnpike via a service road that I wasn’t 100% we were allowed to be on. Somehow it felt like an appropriate end to the whole venture.

All in all, while I do feel like my visit satisfied a certain curiosity I had about the place, I doubt I will return anytime soon. In thinking about our visit in the days afterwards and describing it to my friends and coworkers, I had a galaxy brain moment. I’d been reluctant to call the mall American Dream for so long because I thought it was a stupid name. But after seeing the inside of that blight on the landscape of my home state, I know better. What could be a more perfect name for a massive, partially completed, mostly vacant husk of an expensive land development project than American Dream?

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