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Swamp Dreams

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But Ghermezian also imagines that ­American Dream will end up being a time-saver for New Yorkers. “How would you like to go skiing in the middle of summer?” he asks. “Come here instead of going to Aspen!” When American Dream opens, he expects it will be that much harder to justify leaving the New York area at all. “You don’t have to go anywhere—Rome, Paris, Milan—for shopping. We will have them all here in the Meadowlands in New Jersey.”

Ghermezian is channeling something—a little Robert Moses, a little Norman Bel Geddes designing Futurama for the 1939 World’s Fair. He is not bashful, and he betrays no doubt that his dream will be realized. “So let’s work together, let’s be positive,” he says, and then adds, with steely confidence: “We will have a water park in here.”

Before it was a mall, or even a sports stadium, the Meadowlands was a place where people planned and plotted, where they dreamed of big things and sometimes even realized them, though mostly not. In 1824, Diedrich Knickerbocker, Washington Irving’s Dutch pseudonym, saw the meadows as nothing but emptiness, marked by Snake Hill, the extant rise that, before the pre-ruins of American Dream, was the biggest thing on the horizon: “It appears proudly overshadowing a gentle river, which rolls gracefully by its side, and stands like a giant amidst the desert, frowning upon the monotonous landscape around.”

Even during Irving’s time, however, there were developers who believed the swampy, mosquito-infested “wasteland” could be converted into the most productive farmland the world had ever seen. Just after the War of 1812, General Robert Swartwout bought land and diked it, planning grasses and a giant dairy farm to supply the growing populace of New York. “How can the success of such a work be denied when the most invincible proofs are before us?” Swartwout asked, just before his success was denied, the dikes breaking, the farmland sinking, the site eventually becoming an insane asylum. After the Civil War, Samuel Pike, a New York real-estate developer and distiller, founded the Iron Dike and Land Reclamation Company, also with an eye toward farmland creation. His special iron dikes avoided the erosion of the previous projects, though it is said that corn stalks that grew on the reclaimed land produced no corn. Pike sold his land to the railroads. “The enterprise of bringing it into cultivation bids fair to be a success,” the Times reported of the next giant land-reclamation scheme, before it, too, failed. In 1896, Cornelius C. Vermeule proposed developing the Meadowlands into an industrial city. This plan never got off the ground, either.

In the mid-1900s, a sea-plane base is said to have prospered for a time, and people are thought to have camped in the Meadowlands for the 1939 World’s Fair. But the area was mostly abandoned and the farms were slowly reclaimed, piecemeal, by illegal dumping and the tides. Swarms of mosquitoes—dark clouds of aedes sollicitans, their stingers geared for blood—were frequently said to fly from the marshes to Newark, and were even blamed for infestations in New York. In the fifties, sand drains allowed engineers to build on swamps that had previously proved impervious to development: thus the New Jersey Turnpike, which led to the stadium and racetrack, which led to more plans to do something with the land adjacent, which brings us to American Dream.

The land in question is owned by the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority. It was first planned to be developed by Kajima International, a Japanese company that in 1996 proposed a retail-entertainment “pleasure dome.” By 2002, the project had gotten nowhere, and soon control over the land was granted to the Mills Corporation, a maker of giant malls named after mills (Franklin Mills in Philadelphia, St. Louis Mills in St. Louis, etc.). It was the not-so-halcyon days of the James McGreevey governorship, when shopping seemed as if it would never stop, when malls were the rage. Mills, adopting the pleasure-dome idea, approached the $1.3 billion project with gusto. It called the development Meadowlands Xanadu.

But like many of its forebears, the Mills Corporation’s plan went down the tubes. The company got so far as to build a shell and even an indoor ski slope before skirting bankruptcy in 2007. The Sports and Exposition Authority was stuck with a half-building. Enter Colony Capital, a L.A.-based investment firm with an international background in casinos and hotels. “We are pleased to have the complex negotiations of the last few months behind us and are extremely excited about the project’s momentum,” Colony stated in 2006, immediately before it lost momentum. By 2009, the Xanadu site was a metaphor for the bad-deal rich economy: swampland and every­thing sinking.


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