I

I started listening to Bruce Springsteen when I was fourteen. I don’t remember what it was at that age that made me pay attention to a sixty-year-old man who sang about the American working class, Catholicism, Vietnam, and parties and girls who seemed to be particular to the 80s. Beer was an elixir, old Chevrolets were modest, and putting your arm around a girl momentous. He sang of glory and gasoline and chains and freedom. Men were “working on the line,” “in the fields,” and “’neath the wheels.” He sang about New Jersey and I lived in New Jersey but it wasn’t a New Jersey I recognized. The imagery didn’t resemble my tree-lined suburban neighborhood. Not many people had porches where I could wait restlessly for a charming, troubled guy in a fixed-up car to come and take me flying down the Turnpike, and so I didn’t know what that particular highway breeze felt like coming through the car window (my family didn’t leave the windows open when we drove down the highway because of New Jersey’s notorious highway odors). But I knew the greasy pizza shop where kids from the high school worked that we’d ride our bikes to on a Sunday afternoon and stuff sun bleached twenty-five cent gumballs in our mouths. When we got a little older we would bike to the cafe on the main drag for Oreo milkshakes and then I’d bike home on a ramp over the train tracks and run my fingers along the chain link fence and feel the breeze on my cheeks and in my hair. I knew about craving friction and flicker in a still gray landscape and so I listened.            

And while I, like most, came to love his entire catalog, there’s one song that I played over and over. “The River” was the reason I bought a record player and attempted to learn the harmonica. Bruce Springsteen has said that he wrote “The River” as a tribute to his sister and brother-in-law, whose story the song details. It begins, “I come from down in the valley, where mister when you’re young, they bring you up to do like your daddy done.” It’s about two young people growing up under economic hardship and societal constraints who escape from the valley by driving down to a river. But reality strikes when Mary gets pregnant and they have a hurried, hushed wedding where there were, “no wedding day smiles, no walk down the aisles, no flowers no wedding dress.” It is a song about growing up and not expecting much but also expecting everything and then being painfully disappointed, yet refusing to let go of that reverie. It is, to put it simply, about the American dream.

 

II

The American Dream is a 4,800,000 square foot retail and entertainment complex under construction in the Meadowlands area in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Its gargantuan size means you can’t miss it driving down the New Jersey Turnpike or Route Three. Another reason you can’t miss it is because the exterior looks like a mosaic made of used paint swatches. It is made from aluminum composite and aluminum siding in a spectrum of turquoises, reds, yellows, and greens. Former New Jersey Governor Richard Codey was quoted as calling the structure “yucky-looking.” Governor Chris Christie is on record as saying it’s “an offense to the eyes as you drive up the turnpike” and that “it’s by far the ugliest damn building in New Jersey and America,” though Governor Christie has warmed up to the project since then. An article in NJ.com eloquently referred to it as “a colossal real estate nightmare built to resemble a giant pack of fruit stripe gum.” This stupendous pack of chewing gum is planned to contain: an indoor snow park, a Pepsi globe Ferris wheel, a simulated sky diving contraption, an NHL sized indoor ice rink, a Nickelodeon Universe indoor theme park, a DreamWorks-themed indoor Water Park, a movie theatre, a concert hall, a mini golf course, a Lucky Strike bowling alley, a Legoland Discovery Center, and a Sea Life aquarium. This is not to mention the six anchor retailers with 50,000+ square feet each, 12 major retailers with between 20,000 to 50,000 square feet each, 339 small shops, 21 restaurants, 45 specialty food retailers, 20 food courts including a kosher food court, and five kiosks. “We create centers and environments that are almost like a city, where you can do absolutely anything your heart desires,” said Don Ghermezian, CEO of the Triple Five Group which is currently responsible for the American Dream Meadowlands. “Dining, shopping. Playing. Entertaining. By opening day there’ll be nearly five billion dollars invested in this project. I think that makes it the most expensive retail project on earth.”

 

III

I was at a Sabbath dinner a couple years ago during parent’s weekend at my university. Stanford is a school which prioritizes its appearance as evidenced by the campus’ renowned Palm Drive entrance. The street looks straight off a kitschy T-shirt that says something like “Los Angeles” in pink, swirly font above a blonde girl in shades riding shotgun in a convertible. As you make your way down the drive, you begin to see, in the distance, the intricately carved, red roofed buildings which fan out symmetrically before a mountainous skyline. Arranged before it is a large grass oval with a flower bed at its center planted with red and white Jumbo Olympia begonias arranged in waves around a central Stanford “S.” But perhaps the most striking feature of this landscape is the fluorescence of the grass, both on the oval and the rest of Stanford’s 1.3 million square feet of green areas which are tended to by 2,700 automatic irrigation valves. Even during California’s lowest recorded rainfall in its 163-year recorded history, not a patch of grass showed a fleck of yellow or brown. In fact, during this period, a gray library was knocked down and replaced with none other than a “green.”

Still, it is on parents’ weekend, sometime in February each year, when the university’s resort quality is fully realized. Every year a fleet of red and white balloons tied to dozens of red draped tables pepper the main quad. On top of the tables, water dispensers confettied with mint and cucumber sweat under the California sun. There are cardinal welcome banners and tours leaving on the half hour and a dizzying schedule complete with dozens of receptions and open houses and acapella performances. On this year’s Parents Weekend Friday night, instead of the usual gathering of twenty some students, Sabbath dinner featured the president of Hillel, the dean of religious life, and a few Jewish professors and admissions counselors. After one of the admissions counselors mentioned that she reads applications for Northern New Jersey I asked her what it was like. “Well it’s definitely entertaining,” she said, crossing her arms over her fitted red cardigan, and laughed. “Let’s just say I have read more than enough essays about Bruce Springsteen.” I thought of my brother’s college admission essay that he had just sent me about the Springsteen concert we attended a few years prior. “And every kid from New Jersey wants to tell me they have a poster of Bruce Springsteen on their wall.” I had moved into a smaller room that year and only had wall space for one poster: a three-foot black and white image of Bruce Springsteen with sideburns wearing a sleeveless denim shirt pulling a lungful of stadium air through a harmonica.

 

IV

            The American Dream Meadowlands was first proposed in 2003 by the Mills Corporation as the Meadowlands Xanadu, Kubla Khan’s stately pleasure-dome but filled with fewer gardens and forests and more retail and entertainment. Building began in September 2004 and the complex was expected to open two years later. The Mills Corporation went bankrupt in 2007 and the project was adopted by Colony Capital which announced an anticipated opening in 2008. In May 2009 it was announced that Xanadu was 80% complete, but construction stalled when Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, causing lenders to withdraw from the project which lost 500 million worth of construction funding. In 2010 Stephen Ross, owner of Related Companies in Manhattan declared that he could finish the project by the end of 2010 with a new name and look. The project was handed over to Related Companies and the name was changed from Xanadu to “The Meadowlands.” On February 1, 2011 the Meadowlands experienced a record-breaking snowfall. A 50 to 60-foot-long section of the complex’s eastern wall buckled and, two days later, suffered a partial collapse along an approximately 150-foot stretch of roof due to ice buildup. In April 2011, the Triple Five Group, owners of two of North America’s largest malls, took over the Meadowlands Mall announcing a projected opening for Fall 2013. As it happens the mall is situated just across the highway from Met Life Stadium, home of the New York Giants and the New Jersey Jets. By mid 2012, the two teams filed a lawsuit against Triple Five over traffic concerns on game days. A settlement was reached in March 2014. The agreement does not limit the hours the complex can be open on game days and provides no compensation for the team. New Jersey transit agreed—at its expense—to increase the capacity of its rail link at the sports complex. The Turnpike Authority agreed—also at its expense—to complete improvements at interchange 16W and, “to the extent feasible,” direct traffic on the turnpike before and after games to the eastern spur to ease congestion on the western spur which directly serves the sports complex. For their part, the Giants and Jets agreed not to object to the addition of a three story “connector” that would integrate the existing but unfinished shopping and entertainment building with the planned indoor amusement and water parks. The connector would include about 300,000 square feet of retail, 50,000 square feet of restaurant and food court space, a 20,000 square foot ice rink, and a 16,000 square foot sea lion exhibition space. As for Triple Five, they agreed to increase ramp capacity at various exits by upgrading existing pavement markings and paying for signage at key locations to direct their customers to parking.

            In the summer of 2015 a tax sharing plan between East Rutherford and Triple Five was approved and the New Jersey Economic Development Authority reauthorized a four hundred-million-dollar potential tax break for the project. These steps were supposed to prepare for a sale of up to one billion in government bonds to raise money to complete the project before the second half of 2017, the new projected completion time. But in April 2016 the bond issue fell through and developers struggled to obtain one-billion in additional financing. Construction continued briefly but by December 2017 the project had once again come to a halt. So it sits just off Turnpike Exit 8A surrounded by stretches of grey concrete and brown grass, stalled, lifeless, a still yellow crane hovering overhead.  New Jersey’s interpretation of the American Dream.

 

V

I always thought I was destined for California. For my eighth grade yearbook I was asked to detail my hopes for the future. I kept it as ambiguous as possible, writing that I wanted a job that would “keep me on my toes” and “opportunities to give back to my community,” but there was one detail I was sure of: I was going to college in California. Four years later, after learning of my acceptance, I visited Stanford University—and California—for the first time. I was not disappointed. It was early March and I was outside in a tank top drinking a vegan, protein packed, antioxidant rich blueberry smoothie. Trim, perennially tan students in designer workout clothes sprinted past. I was going to be one of them. And so I fully embraced Northern California. I traded in my Uggs for Birkenstocks and when it got cold I wore them with wool socks. I ditched my humanities path, declared an Environmental Sciences major, and became a vegetarian. I swore off disposable water bottles, attended fossil free meetings, and consumed copious amounts of chia seeds. 

But while I was chomping on kale and signing up for yoga classes something else was happening.  I was bombarded with hundreds of new faces spanning the country and the globe, students who had learned to tell their unique, cogent stories through college applications and interviews. Many had carefully constructed narratives detailing the places and people and circumstances that had shaped them into complex and compelling young men and women (though they would repeatedly break down and reconstruct these stories over the course of four years). I, on the other hand, had clearly not been as introspective. The first few times I was asked where I was from I didn’t think anything of it. That I was from New Jersey was as uninteresting and unchangeable a fact as my brown eyes and five foot one and three quarter inch stature. California was a place with connotations, so was New York, and, as I started to figure out, so was Portland and Austin and, well, all of Canada. New Jersey, I’d always thought, was inconspicuous. But a pattern quickly began to emerge. I would be asked where I was from, “I live in Florence Moore but I’m originally from New Jersey,” I’d say, smiling, intent on seeming open and approachable. Sometimes I would get a shrug and the conversation would move on to prospective majors. But many times the conversation would diverge wildly from the accepted script I had anticipated: I’d get some variation of “I’m sorry.” Sometimes this response was clearly meant to be funny. It would be accompanied by a smirk or a dramatic pause for laughter. Sometimes it came with an “armpit of America” reference or a hand wave across a scrunched-up nose to indicate a foul smell. Sometimes I received the kind of theatrical expression you make when you’ve witnessed a male athlete take a hit to the groin. It made no difference whether the individual making the remark had ever been to New Jersey or if their only associations with the state were formed by a TV show about orange men and women who filled their bodies with profuse amounts of protein powder, alcohol, and Botox in Seaside Heights.

Other times I talked to people who were genuinely sorry. “You must be relieved to be here,” they would say. Sometimes people would ask if I was from the New York part or the Philadelphia part. “I am from New Jersey,” I would respond through clenched teeth. Most people assumed that I had finally executed my long-awaited plan of escape and if I voiced any desire to return to New Jersey it was due to some form of Stockholm Syndrome. 

And so, having never really given a second thought to my relation with my home state, I found myself defending it with the fervor of a martyr. I started to relish the insults—hell, I even encouraged them—because each one was an opportunity to counter with my manifesto to the mediocre: to the highway diners and frozen ponds and muddy parks, to our grit and grime and collection of miserable airports, to the concrete and the traffic and the 500 shades of grey. I would whoop at every mention of New Jersey in the movie theater, at a concert or comedy show, even in class. My crusade did not go unnoticed. New Jersey inhabitants were expected to accept the ridicule silently or even express gratitude for being allowed to migrate to other parts of the country. Someone defending New Jersey for the same reasons it was ceaselessly mocked? It was wholly unexpected and irreverent and it usually bewildered those who were experiencing it for the first time. “California is too perfect,” I would argue, “the expectations here are too high and it’s exhausting. Every view has to be epic, every day cloudless, every burrito mind-numbingly tasty.”

In truth California doesn’t always live up to these expectations. No one warned me that the aridness makes the temperature feel like it’s dropped 20 degrees at night, or that the Pacific Ocean is not swimmable without a wetsuit, even in the summer. I had planned on becoming a skilled surfer in California and I arrived for orientation my freshman year with nothing warmer than a light sweater. “New Jersey is artless about its flaws,” I would maintain. “In fact, we embrace them.” Before I knew it, I had become the West Coast’s staunchest Jersey supporter. It was my identifier and my idiosyncrasy. I had come all the way to California to find how much I was the product of the place I called home.

 

VI

There are two famous live versions of “The River,” both of which are around eleven and a half minutes long. One of them is on the Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band Live 1975-85 album. It begins with some hypnotic guitar picking before Bruce’s deep, raspy voice cuts in, “How you guys doing tonight?” The audience erupts in applause. He then proceeds to share a story about how he and his dad would fight about everything. It is just his voice and the guitar and the organ and the palpable concentration and convergence of the audience as if everyone in the stadium has tilted their heads six inches forward, forming a kind of one way huddle. Springsteen talks about how, because his dad always criticized him, he would stay out of the house as much as possible. When he did come home his father would say to him, “I can’t wait till the army gets you. When the army gets you they’re going to make a man out of you. They are going to cut all that hair off and make a man out of you.” Springsteen watched as guys from his town went to Vietnam, some of whom never came back, and those that did weren’t the same. When he finally received his draft letter he hid it from his parents. Three days before his physical he went out with his friends and stayed up all night. He ended up failing his physical and went home after he had been gone for three days. His dad asked him where he’d been. Bruce said, “I went to take my physical.” “What happened?” His father asked. “They didn’t take me,” said Bruce, to which his father replied, “That’s good.” And then the song begins.

But it is the other version that is my favorite. It is from an album released in 2001 called Live in New York City. It is haunting. The song begins with mournful saxophone solo. Each note is drawn out and given time to echo and diffuse through the stadium. The saxophone fades into arpeggios that sound like they are emanating from an old wooden church piano whose keys depress too easily, and the sweet bitter chords are played in a dreamy syncopated swing.  And then the harmonica cuts in, notes also elongated and mournful but after a few measures they transform in to a kind of consoling lullaby. The sounds emanating from each instrument are full and electric and powerful, so much so that they seem to almost overflow beyond their range. And then Bruce’s deep raspy confession “I come from down in the valley…” He expels all his breathe at the end of every line and then lets out a subdued moan like he has just heaved something onto his back but is trying to maintain composure. At the end of the song he goes into a high register, letting his voice become the melody that saturates the air.

Bruce’s voice and the instruments, every element gains its own momentum, but the residual vibrations mingle and fuse into a swirling hum that persists throughout the song like a reverse prism of sound.  “The River” is a particular description of a tremendous feeling, not just the words but the eleven minutes in its entirety. It is a description both deeply relatable and alienating, you understand profoundly and don’t understand at all. For this craft there is no recipe. It cannot be reduced to the sum of its parts. Springsteen has found the magic in the grime and rust and it is more powerful than anything derived from polish and luster. He is no hero; he is a clairvoyant. He is, “The Boss.”

 

VII

Triple Five currently plans to move ahead with an ambitious 2.65 billion finance plan to bring the American Dream to life. Ghermezian estimates that the complex will attract 40 million visitors a year, half of them tourists from New York City. But so many tourists leaving Manhattan, home to some of the greatest attractions in the world, for suburban New Jersey, seems somewhat implausible. This project was conceived almost 15 years ago and in the vacuous halls lurks the formidable question of whether this irrevocable behemoth is still relevant at a time when online shopping has soared in popularity and American’s are becoming less and less inclined to spend their weekends inside a temple to consumerism. In New Jersey, young people are moving to Hoboken and Jersey City where they can live in urban areas, walk to bars, and get a quick train to Manhattan. The central conceit of a mall—that it is a luxury to have a hub for all your shopping needs—seems no longer relevant in an age when every item or service is a click away and people are flocking to cities whose streets are lined with retail options. Opportunities to buy are masterfully woven into the fabric of our daily lives. Consumers are seeking boutiques which promise a personal experience and so hardly any new indoor malls are being built, and meanwhile dozens have been demolished.  

A major argument cited in support for the American Dream is that it will be a huge economic boon. “We’re creating tens of thousands of jobs, we’re creating an incredible tax base and revenue for the state of New Jersey,” said Ghermezian. But even if the project is realized according to plan, public records indicate that the annual net benefit for New Jersey will be an estimated thirty-six million dollars. The New Jersey Economic Development Authority predicts that most of the permanent jobs that will be created by the American Dream will pay less than twenty thousand dollars a year. In East Rutherford, where the project is located, median household income runs close to eighty thousand dollars. According to rent totals tracked annually by affordable housing activists, twenty thousand dollars a year is not even enough to afford a one-bedroom apartment in most of the surrounding communities in Bergen and Hudson counties. This would most likely mean that employees could qualify for state public assistance programs. Therefore, it may not have been completely unwarranted when the New York Times described the American Dream as, “what could perhaps be the worst retail failure ever.”

             

VIII

The setting is always dark in Bruce Springsteen’s songs. The scene is a shadowy road or alley or corner or porch. Springsteen sings about the desire to escape but there is no mention of truly leaving. Yes, he drives but there is no hint as to where he is going or if a destination even matters. In one of his most famous songs, “Dancing in the Dark,” he sings, “Stay on the streets of this town and they’ll be carving you up alright. They say you gotta stay hungry hey babe I’m just about starving tonight.” It is the act of driving, the feeling of hunger, the dream that swells in the darkness. Without it there would be no music. There would be no Springsteen.

 

IX

In the last stanza of “The River,” Bruce Springsteen asks, “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true or is it something worse that sends me down to the river though I know the river is dry.” If you could press rewind on a time-lapse video of the Meadowlands you would see what looks like a gigantic pack of fruit stripe gum being taken apart. Rewind a little further and you’d see houses vanish and vegetative cover proliferate. Toxic waste, heated effluents from power plants, and industrial discharges would be extracted from the Hackensack River and replaced with thousands of fish. Over 2,500 acres of land would be excavated to reveal charred garbage which would be removed and trucked away at the rate of ten thousand tons a day. Smoke would be sucked back into the chimneys of factories, themselves then dismantled. Dams would vanish, the water levels would recalibrate, and the rivers would be populated with the sons of farmers cooling off on a sunny afternoon. Atlantic White Cedars would erupt from the earth and railroad tracks and roads would fade, reforming a single vast stretch of land. Dikes and drainage ditches would vanish backwards from the wetlands, filling with soil, and the ground would begin to ooze water, fresh murky New Jersey water, and it would ripple in the breeze.