American Dream Is Too Big To Fail

Illustration: Elena Scotti (Photos: Getty Images, AP, Shutterstock)

Deep in the bowels of the American Dream, a 1.3 million square foot mega-mall in New Jersey’s marshy, low-lying Meadowlands, I laughed out loud in what I now recognize as the first real moment of delight I’ve felt in some time. I had been at the mall for about an hour or so, strolling its enormous corridors and marveling at the delights within, when I saw a small child in a face mask zip by astride a motorized stuffed tiger. This was a Dream Rider, one of the dozens of gimmicky attractions offered at American Dream, and I knew that to fully experience the mall as its creators intended, I had to find the stable that housed these animals and ride one for myself.

About ten minutes and $10 later, I was zooming around a corridor of the American Dream, laughing so hard that I was crying, going maybe 1 MPH on a stuffed rhino selected purely because he seemed both sturdy and kind of over it. I gunned the engine towards a plaza filled with uncomfortable-looking chairs. I tested my driving skills (laughable) and my steed’s turn radius (non-existent) by executing one very slow donut in front of my accomplice, Jezebel senior editor Kelly Faircloth. Emboldened and free, I weaved in and out of the Marvel-themed photo booths plunked in the middle of the walkway and even considered rolling up to the Wetzel’s Pretzel’s, buying one, and then eating it while driving my new best friend with one hand.

But 10 minutes is a long time to spend riding around a small area of a large shopping mall, especially if you’re an adult. The novelty of riding around on a contraption meant for children—like the ones I was smoking in my loops around the area to which we were confined—was done after about three minutes or so. Five minutes, which is how much time had elapsed when I asked my accomplice to check, felt like an eternity. I no longer felt the need or desire to ride the rhinoceros. This is the American Dream in a nutshell: something you think will be fun for much longer than it actually is. Any fun one might find inside its massive walls is fleeting, replaced almost immediately by fatigue. I drove him back to his stable, dismounted, and watched as an employee in a face mask hosed him down with a spray bottle and wiped off his plastic-covered back. It was time for lunch.


Construction on the American Dream began some 15 years ago in the swamplands of East Rutherford, New Jersey, in the shadow of MetLife Stadium. At the time, it was called Xanadu: a larger-than-life fantasy that was not a “mall” but a retail and entertainment destination, somewhere between a regular shopping mall and Orlando, Florida’s multi-verse of theme parks and attractions. Its path to existence has been fraught with financial woes and beset with a classic case of failure to launch. Xanadu began its slow rise from the earth in 2005, scheduled to open to the public in 2007. Construction wasn’t smooth; financing on the project changed multiple hands and ground to a standstill by the recession in 2009. Early on, there was supposed to be an enormous Ferris wheel modeled after the Eye of London, which would gaze upon the mosquito-ridden marshes of northern New Jersey and the nearby New York City skyline. While Xanadu was under construction, its neighbor, MetLife Stadium, was racing toward the finish line, completed in time to host the Super Bowl in 2010. (There was concern that the mall would somehow distract visitors from attending events at the football stadium, but the New York Jets and Giants settled their lawsuit regarding this with the mall’s developers peacefully.)

In 2011, a development company called Triple 5 took over, changing the name from Xanadu to American Dream and attempting to make the mall the showcase of the New York City metropolitan area. First, by promising the sorts of attractions that would rival the other big mall, the Mall of America in Minnesota, and second, by actually opening to the public. Portions of the mall—retail stores, mostly—were set to open in mid-March 2020, but, in keeping with the vexed nature of this project from its beginning, the entire thing shut down on March 16 in response to the pandemic and remained closed for almost seven months. Finally, in October, the mall opened to the general public in full, pandemic be damned, with the hopes that the various attractions that occupy much of its massive footprint will lure anyone into its gleaming halls.

There’s no doubt that American Dream’s owners would like it to be the future of retail, but now, that future looks much bleaker than it did when Xanadu was merely a twinkle in a developer’s greedy eye. The forecast for brick and mortar retail has been grim for years, but the pandemic has accelerated the pace of its demise. Brands like Lord and Taylor, Neiman Marcus, and Pier One have filed for bankruptcy or gone out of business entirely in the past year, succumbing to the drop in foot traffic. Online shopping is the norm, the world has sworn fealty to Jeff Bezos’s evil empire, and where does that leave the mall? The American Dream’s answer is that the mall of the future will be not just a place for shopping, but an experience. The promise is a one-stop destination for anything and everything you could possibly want, all under one absolutely enormous roof. The mall’s PR positions the place as a destination on par with an all-inclusive stay at a resort somewhere far away from New Jersey. “Since most air travel is halted right now, we’ve created the ultimate daycation destination - no passport required,” Ken Downing, Chief Creative Officer of Triple Five Group said in a press release touting Skybox Suites in the DreamWorks Water Park, “curated” by New Jersey’s finest, Jonathan Adler. “An afternoon spent shopping, dining, and relaxing inside one of our luxury suites provides a much-needed escape from the everyday.”

Unfortunately, reality doesn’t quite meet these lofty expectations. For starters, the mall lacks an anchor store, mostly because the ones that were slated to open have either filed for bankruptcy or pulled out over the course of its forced closure. (Reportedly, Saks Fifth Avenue will open in September 2021, but I am not holding my breath.) There are plenty of things that I do want from a good mall—a Sephora and an Ulta, a very well-organized Zara, and the most bountiful H&M I’ve ever seen—but the retail clearly isn’t meant to be the draw. It was impossible to get a good sense of the lay of the land, because the space is so dizzyingly big and therefore disorienting. Over the course of the entire day that I spent walking around, I found myself lost many times over, attempting to orient myself by the murals that papered empty storefronts—nicer than gaping holes covered with metal grates, but still disorienting—and failed, every time. The atrium of the mall was my North Star, plopped in the middle of the thing, a verdant paradise featuring rolling (manufactured) hills and little cul de sacs populated with gnome figurines and gazebos, perfect for pulling over and taking a photo for social. The familiar scent of chlorine wafted through this area, thanks to a wishing well in the center that glittered with discarded pocket change. I passed the atrium at least twice on my journey, but never spent as much time as I wanted to in there, because I was overwhelmed and a little breathless at the sheer scope of the building, and felt very much like it was my duty to see everything, immediately, at once.

The perfect amount of time to spend at a mall, even a very good one, is three hours, max. That’s more than enough time to go to one big store, four to five small ones, and then to end the afternoon by eating a pile of garbage at the Cheesecake Factory. Unfortunately, we stayed for six, and halfway through our stay, I lost any real sense of time or place, as if I had finally achieved the smooth brain, lobotomy feeling that I have craved for a calendar year. Much like being in an airport on a long layover or a casino when only slightly drunk, the experience of the mall was like walking through very pleasant mud—plodding, slightly overwhelming, and at varying points, making me feel as if I needed to just lay down and wait for death to take me.

Perhaps the issues I experienced were because the mall itself is designed to trap its inhabitants for longer than they’d like, in order to direct traffic away from its retail opportunities and towards its many attractions. It took a good 15 minutes to even find the water park or the amusement park, because they were located at least a mile away from each other, tucked away in various wings meant to conceal, then reveal, their grandeur. My excitement about my grand adventure in New Jersey meant that I’d read the list of attractions available to me on the mall’s website numerous times, ogling at the photos of the water park, picturing myself blissed out in a two-piece, floating down the lazy river. With enough weed or just a very big bottle of water, I thought, I would be happy to partake in all of the attractions. But once I was there, with it all staring me in the face, I felt intimidated, like being trapped at a social gathering I did not want to attend and being forced to make small talk with strangers.

I wasn’t properly prepared to engage with the mall’s many marquee attractions, but I will say that I was tempted. Of the two mini-golf offerings at the mall, the Blacklight Mini Golf is the kind of attraction I wish my hometown mall had offered. The Angry Birds-branded iteration looked to be primarily for children. The indoor ski slope—the only one in the United States!—was not visible, hidden behind a store that sold ski rentals and equipment, in case you found yourself trying to return something to Fabletics and decided to do a few runs on a whim. But the other attractions, arguably more exciting, were loud and proud in their respective corners, visible enough to the mall-walker to serve as temptation. The Nickelodeon-themed amusement park is not an attraction that I will visit, because amusement parks are for the young and the adventurous, and I am no longer either. But the Dreamworks Waterpark beckoned like a beautiful oasis—a gigantic watery paradise that cost $75 to enter and likely worth every penny.

Truthfully, this is where we lingered the most, peeking through a glass window covered in palm-printed vinyl stickers that mostly obscured the patrons waddling to and from the wave pool to lazy river and back. Had I come equipped with a bathing suit and various sundries required for a day of inside pool time, I would’ve risked it all to stand in a wave pool the size of a football field, just to feel something different. Swimming and shopping are not particularly friendly bedfellows, if only for practicality’s sake. Wearing your swimsuit to the mall and then leaving the swim area dressed in a soggy coverup and flip-flops while other people are just trying to do a return at Old Navy is precisely the sort of chaos I look to avoid. But the prospect of doing so just for the novelty is tempting enough for me to give it a try.

Ultimately, though, the American Dream fails in its core mandate, which is to be a good mall. By definition, a “good” mall is subjective; what I value in a shopping mall is different from another person. For me, a good mall depends on the environment; the Poughkeepsie Galleria was the good mall growing up because it had luxuries like Macy’s that the Hudson Valley Mall, in Kingston, lacked. The Sunvalley Mall in Concord, California, was “good” because of its retail opportunities as well, but mostly because of Fresh Choice, a since-closed chain of buffet restaurants with a robust dessert bar and many soups, which my family and I loved. The malls of my adulthood are not the malls that exist in New York City, like Hudson Yard or The Shops at Columbus Circle, but the ones that exist up north, in the lower reaches of Westchester County. Of the two closest to New York, I prefer the Cross County—an outdoor shopping mall with a Shake Shack and a Chipotle, at least two big-box sneaker stores, and one free-standing pretzel kiosk, to the Westchester, which is the shiny luxury mall in White Plains. Though the Westchester has its appeal, the food court is far too luxurious for a shopping mall, and once, I saw a dog take an enormous poop on the marble floor somewhere on the upper level.

The luxury mall experience simply doesn’t exist in America in the way that it does internationally, and the American Dream—ski slope notwithstanding—does nothing to change that fact. Of all the malls I’ve visited in my life, nothing tops the experience of Taipei 101 and its surrounding environs, the apex of my mall experience which solidified what makes a mall good. The food courts are abundant, but the stores are all luxury experiences, even if they are just a flagship H&M or a Nike Store selling exclusives. True, the five floors of retail offered by Taipei 101 are largely out of my price range, but the entire experience was curated and overall very pleasant; everything smelled like a hotel and the temperature was moderate. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of American Dream.

The sheer size of the thing is literally breathtaking and immediately disorienting, both sensations which were likely heightened because it’s been over a year since I have spent any time inside a public space. The music was louder than music should be; it was cold, and then hot. At one point, Kelly and I found ourselves yelling over bad pop-punk blaring from the sound system of ITSugar, a two-story monument to tooth decay, as we searched the shelves for Goo Goo Clusters. (We spent the most time here, despite the volume of the music, and the Goo Goo Clusters were by the register.) The only store that I wanted to go into that I didn’t was American Eagle; coincidentally, it was the only store in the mall that ever had a line to get in. The map was helpfully located in kiosks scattered throughout the mall, but for some possibly pandemic-related reason, the screens were not touch screen, rendering them completely useless for my needs, which was to be able to touch the name of a store and be led to a map leading me directly there. In addition to the directory being useless for my very specific needs, the unfinished quality of the mall itself lent itself to further confusion. Escalator banks that were boarded up from their entrance led up to the top level of the mall, which appeared to be both unfinished and empty. Zombies are not real, but if they were, I imagine they’d find a nice home in the upper reaches of the American Dream, lying in wait for night.

American Dream holds the promise of at least two hours’ worth of distraction for bored kids and their harried parents, and also, for me. Though I’ve aged out of one category and opted out of the other, any mundane experience dressed up in formalwear, like American Dream, is something that always holds my interest. Time inside the mall was compressed, then stretched, then rendered completely irrelevant—a smooth six hours that felt at varying times like an entire day, but stopped being fun as if a switch had flipped. It’s an experience much like life: a little too long, but when it’s nearing its end, you might just want a little bit more.

DISCUSSION

By
Andrea Twerkin

Taipei 101, Hudson Yards, the Prudential Mall in Boston - these are distinctly different from what one typically means by “mall” in America. Those other examples were built in city centers where clear demand for retail space existed. They are successful because there are people there who want to buy things. The normal American “mall” is a manufactured shopping district. It’s essentially an attempt to conjure warm bodies and commerce to a place that has none.

It’s frustrating to watch Americans continue to rely on suburban development for housing and office spaces and then try to conjure urban shopping districts from nowhere. There is a clear formula for how to get a lively walkable shopping district - create livable and walkable mixed use districts for living, working and shopping rather than siloed cul de sacs and office parks.

It’s mind-numbing to realize on Google Maps that most malls are surrounded by parking lots several times larger than the entire square footage of the mall itself. If customers are driving several exits down the highway to get to a mall it will fail as soon as anyone builds another one exit closer to them. A central residential, office and retail district is not so easily cannibalized by another - see: every single city that has survived and thrived through midcentury suburban flight.