The Stuff the American Dream Is Made of

The American Dream shopping and entertainment complex in East Rutherford, New Jersey.




Attractions and stores at American Dream are temporarily closed.

That online announcement was not meant as metaphor. It refers specifically to the contents of the three-million-square-foot American Dream, a collection of experiences that refuses to call itself a mall. “The psychic center of American social life has shifted from buying things to feeling them,” Amanda Hess noted in a New York Times article about the place’s grand opening. Which is now a closure.

Because of COVID-19, Nickelodeon Universe, the largest indoor theme park in the Western hemisphere, stands empty and echoey. Make a Splash DreamWorks Water Park, complete with Shrek’s Swamp and the Kung Fu Panda Zone, is dry. No one is skating on the NHL-sized hockey rink or skiing Big Snow, an indoor slope filled with 5,500 tons of “real snow.” (“Every day is a snow day,” American Dream promised—which, for me, instantly kills the joy of a snow day.)

As for the retail piece, because it is always a factor—Americans would put gift shops and concessions in state funerals if they could—it, too, is closed. We cannot try on one of Whoopi Goldberg’s ugly holiday sweaters or pretend we are rich (the biggest American game of all) by eating caviar and sipping champagne in a fake Paris or gazing at the, yes, literally, gilded lilies in the Koi Court near Saks Fifth Avenue and Barney’s.

At last fall’s grand opening, publicity for the American Dream stressed its authenticity. A field hopping with live rabbits. An antique aviary with seasonal live birds and butterflies. Seasonal changes, blossoming cherry trees. “We’re not going to do anything that’s fake,” co-CEO Don Ghermezian told the media.

His definition could be debated. But American Dream does place huge emphasis on nature—all of it under glass. Is this the future, this climate-controlled ersatz authenticity? Because in truth, none of this happened naturally or organically. The site is a bit of wetland in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Building the dream took close to twenty years, with several false starts. The first developer ran out of money and filed for bankruptcy protection. The second pulled out in 2010. At one point, the building had a bright checkerboard façade; Governor Chris Christie called it “the ugliest damn building in New Jersey, maybe America.” For a while, it was named Xanadu.

Now, American Dream is a lot like new Las Vegas. Old Las Vegas catered to booze, sex and greed, which seems almost quaint now. New Las Vegas is slicker and sneakier, the strategist’s notion of Americans’ fantasy life, jammed with different scenarios and everything possible all the time.

There are fountains here, too, and they part every two hours for a Cirque du Soleil acrobatic show. You can track your kids electronically. The scale is undeniably American: Everything is superlative, from the steepest drop of any roller coaster to the tallest indoor body slides, the biggest wave pool, the first Angry Birds mini-golf. There is even IT’SUGAR, the world’s largest candy store that does not make its own candy. What it did make, for the grand opening? A sixty-foot Statue of Liberty, its verdigris supplied by green jelly beans, its torch a lollipop. Her sash reads, “You know you want it.”

Lauren Berlant describes the American Dream (the one that inspired this one) as “cruel optimism,” the title of her 2011 book of cultural criticism. Why? Because the dream floats goals that will not make us happy after all. Cruel optimism kicks in “when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your own flourishing.” Is it an obstacle to splash and ski and pretend to be carefree? Probably not. But defining our collective dream this way could be.

The developers of American Dream predicted massive contributions to the local economy, but estimates from the New Jersey Economic Development Authority and the New Jersey employment statisticians have been less rosy. And the jobs created will not pay enough for someone to rent a one-bedroom apartment anywhere nearby.

But no matter. The developers (the Ghermezian family, incorporated under the name Triple Five) have plans under way for similar experiential palaces in Miami (American Dream Miami), then maybe California and … wait for it … Las Vegas. Meanwhile, when they reopen after the COVID-19 closure, they will be shifting the dream yet again. “We are going to come out of this super strong … really strong on the entertainment side,” Ghermezian told CNBC a few days ago, counting on Americans to be stir-crazy after sheltering in place for so long. Experiences will matter even more, and retail, forced into a reckoning by the pandemic, will shrink to maybe thirty percent of the enterprise. “Those retailers that were on the bubble—I fully expect a number of those retailers to be gone,” said Ghermezian.

Maybe this is—except for those retailers he blithely bids goodbye—good news. Maybe we really have stopped obsessing about the acquisition of stuff. But are pricey prepackaged experiences much better, or do they just commodify—well, us?

For all its emphasis on authenticity, American Dream easily could have been virtual all along. This was choreographed fun. Nobody was going to be climbing a real tree or sliding down a real snowy hill or feeling the sun and wind and cold salty water as they waded into a tidal pool to find a shell they had never seen before. So, instead of all those bright and shiny superlatives luring people to a swampy bit of real estate for a rehearsed collective experience, the developers could have skipped physical reality altogether.

That way, nobody would have had to wake up.