The American Dream mall in Rutherford, NJ, also known as American Dream Meadowlands, had a long and bizarre journey through planning and construction that produced a long and bizarre shopping complex. It’s hard not to be a bit bewildered and overwhelmed by the excess inside, or to draw obvious parallels between the concept of the American Dream and its devolution into the depths of the consumerism and entertainment that the mall celebrates. Having said that, it’s equally difficult not to be a bit impressed by how surreal and extravagant it is – a construction of bourgeoisie Dadaism that rejects sanity itself in ways that are constantly surprising and occasionally delightful.
American Dream Meadowlands was originally proposed in 2003 with the name Meadowlands Xanadu, although the Mills Corporation had been kicking around ideas for a mall since 1994. The original site in Carlstadt, NJ was nixed when permits were denied because of the ecological impact of the mall. After years in limbo, ground was broken at the current site in 2004, but by 2009 Xanadu was still only 80% complete and ownership had been sold to Colony Capital. Construction was halted that year when backers either went bankrupt or backed out. In 2011 Triple Five, owners of the Mall of America among other properties, took ownership and renamed it American Dream. Triple Five proposed the addition of a waterpark and amusement park in the mall, and lawsuits followed about the impact of traffic on the nearby MetLife Stadium. A tentative opening date in 2014 came and went as money, permits, and lawsuits bogged down the project, as did one in 2016. Finally, the first stage opened in 2019, which included an indoor ski slope, the water park, and an ice-skating rink. The next stage, which included the water park, 100 restaurants, and 350 shops, was scheduled for March 2020. As you might guess, the timing couldn’t have been worse, and the mall remained closed for months as tenants either went bankrupt or pulled out of the project.
American Dream finally opened back up in October 2020, and has been growing since. Stores include Toys R Us’ flagship store, the Sealife Aquarium, Legoland Discovery Center, a go-kart academy, virtual reality attractions, a concert venue, and much more. There’s It’s Sugar, a three-floor candy store with a two-story Statue of Liberty over its entrance, holding a lollipop in one hand and Oreos in the other. Swanky seating abounds. There’s a gnome park with flowery gazebos people pose for pictures in, and an Angry Birds-themed miniature golf course. LED lighting everywhere gives one the impression they’re on some hyper capitalist spaceship. Little Coca-Cola branded lounges offer a place to curl up and subconsciously soak in some ads. Nonsense murals cover the walls featuring flamingos, dogs in masks playing pianos with cherubs popping out of them, or busts of women wearing strands of pearls and lobsters for hats. Nightmarish, multifaced statues with topiary shrubs jutting out of the top of their head greet you. It’s a dream, but it feels like one that John Waters might have if he contracted malaria. It is the dark heart of commerce: just random, nihilistic over-the top stuff there to bemuse and disorient you, and pick your pocket in the process.
It sounds like I hated it, and I didn’t. It seems like a place that is too strange to exist, and if its current financial woes continue, it may not for long. I actually would like to go back with my wife, for much the same reason I watched the movie Cats with her after I had already seen it alone out of mortified curiosity once: you almost need confirmation that what you saw is truly real and not a hallucination brought about by some undiagnosed medical condition. If you have the money and kids with you, checking out the water park or amusement park seems like it could be fun, and the idea of skiing indoors is appealing too. It’s just Extra, in every sense of the word. Going through it alone, it felt more like a dystopian level in a science-fiction video game – “see how over the top the future is?”, you can almost hear the game designers saying. But it’s not the future and not a game, it’s the present, and whether you find that intriguing, horrifying, or a mixture of both is entirely up to you.
Matthew Christopher NJ East Rutherford Sep 22, 2022 Places to Visit Retail Stores Reviews