About an hour into my feverish Monday afternoon wandering the marble floors of the Shops at Hudson Yards, Manhattan’s latest and most controversial shopping experience, I realized that I was lost. I had been walking through the mall with purpose, looking for either a bathroom or a place to get an iced tea, but found neither. A right turn by the big Sephora, and then another left across a walkway, and somehow, I missed the down escalator and ended up in the same place I thought I was. The Shops at Hudson Yards are maybe Hell—720,000 feet of oppressive sameness and faintly good scent, with elusive exits and clothing a normal person cannot reasonably afford.
The Shops at Hudson Yards opened with the kind of fanfare one might expect for anything other than a shopping mall—a Nancy Meyers movie premiere or some sort of awards ceremony would merit Liza Minelli smoking something backstage and then warbling a rendition of “New York, New York.” Anne Hathaway was there. Whoopi Goldberg was there. On Friday morning, when the 7,200-foot complex officially opened, Anderson Cooper and Big Bird oversaw the proceedings. The Hudson Yards development, which includes high-end residences and the new offices of corporations like BlackRock and L’Oreal, was 10 years in the making, and is clearly intended to be a monument to luxury. Instead, it suggests a sort of universal cosmopolitan urban experience of the sort that ostensibly sucks the heart and soul from a city. When the compound opened Friday, the reviews were overwhelmingly disdainful. “It is, at heart, a supersized suburban-style office park, with a shopping mall and a quasi-gated condo communit targeted at the 0.1 percent,” Micheal Kimmelman wrote in a scathing review in the New York Times. “Healthy cities are adaptive organisms. If New Yorkers take to the Shed and eat at the mall, Hudson Yards may come to seem less like some gated community in Singapore.”
Nothng about Hudson Yards felt soul-sucking to me, though, because the experience of being in the space was so clean and pure. Opulence for opulence’s sake is the driving force behind the kind of empty, soulless architecture of Trump Tower, but Hudson Yards is too sanitary to signify that sort of nouveau riche. The point of Hudson Yards is so that the residents of the luxury high-rises who paid roughly $4.3 million for a three-bedroom apartment can ride their fast elevators down to the mall, stop by Molton Brown to pick up some hand soap, grab a few things for cocktails from Citarella, and then bop over to Theory for another pair of work pants. It is a self-contained city (subsidized by my taxes) for recent transplants to New York who make a billion dollars and do not ever think about money. Working up the energy to be upset about its inception is low on my list; I would much rather enjoy the utter weirdness of a real estate developer’s vision of grandeur. Every city in the world will eventually look the same and this is an inevitability I have chosen to accept. Ideally, I will be dead by then, and then, of course, I will no longer care.
The luxury within the mall itself is on the scale of shopping malls in Dubai. It smells like a boutique hotel; the lighting is tastefully moody yet everything shines. There are mirrors everywhere; I nearly walked into one at Uniqlo while browsing workout tops, and later found myself confused by a mirror I thought was an exit on the second floor of Neiman Marcus. Security guards were posted everywhere, in droves like I’d never seen before, clustered by the entrances and standing on the walkways with their hands clasped behind their backs. When I asked a man standing outside in the whipping wind if he knew how I could find a specific entrance of the mall, he told me he had no idea. “I started today,” he said. “Sorry.”
With no real game plan in place, I wandered aimlessly around for an hour and a half, mimicking the easy, casual pattern of my Saturday morning strolls in my neighborhood, where I will go into the same five stores, touch items of clothing, and leave empty-handed but for an iced tea. At a store called Batch whose target demographic seemed to be extremely wealthy dog owners with a passion for Urban Outfitters-adjacent home decor, I petted a round chunk of a bulldog named Jack and a friendly Australian woman told me that she thought there were at least 1.5 million people at the mall on Saturday, the day after it opened.
I was not moved to purchase anything at Batch or at any of the other stores that I wandered into, though I briefly considered standing in line at Snark Park, an Instagram-bait installation. I skipped it because the employee guiding the line told me that it was just an ice cream parlor in collaboration with streetwear brand KITH, whose other recent collaboration with Versace was largely hideous. In my search for a beverage, I stumbled upon an unmanned corner store cooler full of Dirty Lemon drinks that seemed free for the taking. I scrolled through the accompanying iPad trying to figure out how to purchase a $10 bottle of water in the flavor “+charcoal.” A very patient woman explained to me that you text the number provided and eventually, you pay. “See,” she said, scrolling through her phone and showing me a long chain of correspondence. “Just tell them you’re taking the water and they’ll charge you.” Like most of the stores I wandered through, it was meant to be an experience, but it was so experiential that it deterred me from buying anything due to extreme effort and also slight confusion. Luxury malls might be able to save retail if the shopping experience didn’t feel like a test one might fail at any given time.
The traditional shopping mall has been on the decline for years, and those that are still hanging on are doing so by the skin of their very teeth. Luxury shopping experiences like the Shops at Hudson Yards or its spiritual forebear in Manhattan, the Shops at Columbus circle, are meant to appeal to the needs of consumers who desire both fancy items and fire content for their personal brands. Retail experiences must be Experiences; the Glossier showroom in Chinatown is soft, pink, and Instagrammable. Drawing people in with the promise of a cute selfie and hoping that they maybe buy something on their way out is the name of the game now—a desperate appeal to narcissism or just a savvy recalibration of retail, tailored to fit our bleak times.
Down every other corridor, there was public art on the walls, though none of it was very provocative; almost every surface of the mall is designed to be photographed and shared. Tourists in winter coats wrote messages on a wall covered in mermaid sequins; I tried to draw a smiley face and contemplated for a moment attempting to draw a dick. Instead I combed the acrylic yarn hair of an abstract rendition of a dog, eavesdropping on the couple sitting on an iron dog bone next to me. The woman idled the handle of her New Yorker tote bag and spoke in low, hushed tones about how ridiculous the space was. During a brief moment of panic in my never-ending quest for an iced beverage, I walked past a selfie wall where women in flower crowns posed for their Instas. Later, I looked for that selfie wall for 15 minutes, and could not find it again.
The mall’s pleasures were brief, as I do not have the means to buy really anything that was being sold anywhere. Once outside, I turned my attention to Vessel, a massive structure designed by Thomas Heatherwick that is essentially a collection of interlinking staircases that lead to nowhere. It is hideous and out of place, a hulking copper blob that resembles a Battlestar Galactica reject set piece or the Eye of Sauron. One free ticket gets you an hour of time to wander up and down the stairs, pause on every landing, and take pictures of the view as seen through the structure’s lattices. Everything about Vessel was horrifying to me, a person whose fear of heights is strong enough that I don’t linger too close to the edge of anything. Though Vessel is exceedingly safe, looking over the edge and out to the M.C. Escher hellscape of staircases stopping and starting made me queasy. The view from the top was nice enough, but gazing down into the abyss turned my legs into Jell-O.
Once inside, it was impossible to take a bad photo. Every angle produced a dizzying optical illusion that somehow looked professional—a design tactic surely meant to attract millions of people with Instagram accounts. Every photo that’s taken in Vessel belongs to Vessel—a fact that was widely circulated on Twitter and cleared up slightly by a representative for the sculpture, who told Gothamist that the intent of the clause was to allow Vessel to use your Vessel content to “amplify and re-share photos already shared on individual social channels through our website and social channels.” I know I should care about a public art installation using my mediocre Instagram photo for future ad campaigns, but again, there are larger things in the world to be angry about. Walking down the stairs, I felt nothing but a soothing emptiness tinged with a hint of relief—the perfect capstone to an experience that honestly wasn’t as bad as it seemed like it would be.
On my way to the train, right outside one of the complex’s many exits, I saw a crowd gathered under an overpass, watching a hot dog cart engulfed in flames across the street. A fire truck pulled up and a few police officers halfheartedly moved the crowd back. I watched as they sprayed the cart and then hacked at it with their big axes. Eventually the fire stopped. The crowd dispersed and the hot dog cart smoldered quietly in the shadow of Hudson Yards, glimmering faintly in the distance.