American Dream, New Jersey

True to my ambition to visit abandoned malls in New Jersey once I got vaccinated, I went to the American Dream mall in East Rutherford.

The mall is located across the river from Manhattan on a gargantuan plot of land that’s been in development since 2003, and you can get a good eyeful of the massive scale of complex while driving on I-95 towards the entrance of the Lincoln Tunnel. From what I understand, the state of New Jersey has been working with various developers to create an attraction that will draw consumer spending money from the city and convince out-of-town tourists to spend the night in a hotel in New Jersey instead of New York, and the amount of money invested is in the billions of dollars. Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey, allocated hundreds of millions of dollars of yearly subsidies into the seeing the development completed, which allowed it to project an opening in early 2020… and then the pandemic hit.

Parts of the mall are still under construction, and not all of its retail spaces are occupied, but it’s now open to the public. It is very new and very shiny. The pure white walls and floors gleam under soft white light, and there are fresh-cut flowers and public art everywhere. The empty storefronts and closed-off corridors are hidden by paneling covered in unique and gorgeous graphics, and there are all sorts of interesting pieces of modern furniture in the atrium areas. The soap in the literally sparkling-clean bathrooms is high-quality foam that smells like a garden in springtime.

The shopping seems to be relatively upscale, and the anchor stores are European chains like Primark and H&M. It’s not open yet, but there’s going to be an H-Mart in the basement, which I think is probably a nod to the East Asian retail strategy of having fancy grocery stores in shopping centers. It seems that the mall is also going to have a “luxury wing,” but it hasn’t yet been completed. They’re probably going to charge for parking in the future, but right now it’s free.

What makes this mall unique is that it also has a snowboarding hill, an ice skating rink, two mini golf courses, a Nickelodeon-branded theme park for little kids, and a huge and beautiful DreamWorks-branded water park in a huge and beautiful tropical biodome. There are a few other attractions that are still getting set up, like an aquarium that looks like it’s going to fit the aesthetic of being huge and beautiful and heavily themed in an offbeat artistic way that appeals to younger kids. If I understand the map correctly, the aquarium will have a giant ocean tunnel that will let you walk through a fantasy of a postapocalyptic underwater New York City, which is a bit morbid but still pretty cool.

And this entire place is completely empty. Just, completely empty. Except for a skeleton crew of retail employees at the stores and a few maintenance staff tending to the plants and flowers, there’s no one in the mall. American Dream looks like the international terminal of an airport if humans were to suddenly disappear from the face of the earth – very shiny and modern and clean, but deserted.

Anyway, now I’m wondering how you get the job of being a member of the gardening staff at a high-end abandoned mall that was a ruin before it even opened, because the people I saw tending to the plants and misting the flowers looked very peaceful and happy. It was some next-level Studio Ghibli magic, like Castle in the Sky except real.

If anyone asks, being a gardener in the ruins of capitalism is very much where I would like to see myself in five years.

The Sepia Tinge of Decay

Echo of footsteps
A sharp fluorescent buzzing
Empty grocery store

I spent way too much time watching Dan Bell’s Dead Mall series on YouTube last night, and it creeped me out. Dan Bell himself is appreciative of the period architecture and kitsch aesthetic, and he doesn’t film in a way that attempts to create elements of horror where none exist, but there’s still something upsetting about these places.

This video series is all very Rust Belt; and, based on the specific locations, I would assume that this slowly creeping neglect is connected to both rural depopulation and the institutionalized economic marginalization of Black communities. That’s upsetting enough in and of itself, of course.

But there’s also a more universal memento mori quality to these videos that inspires a dread of cultural senescence.

I feel like someone should make a video series along the same lines about abandoned websites, because they give off the same sort of energy. It’s not nostalgia, because the affect is distinctly negative, but it’s similar. I think what makes the urban exploration of abandoned malls unpleasant is that they’re “abandoned” instead of “closed,” meaning that the lights are still on and the water is still running. If they were completely shut down and gradually being overtaken by nature, they would be beautiful, but there are still people inside these almost-dead buildings, and that’s disturbing. In the same way, online spaces like Blogspot/Blogger feel weird because there are still a few people using them, and websites for children’s movies from the 2000s are a little eerie because someone is still paying to host them. You want to feel nostalgia when you look at the past; but then, when you realize that it’s not safely in the past, it’s uncomfortable and uncanny.

Also, can I be real for a second? Tumblr is starting to take on an “abandoned mall” feeling, and I don’t like it.