10 • Reflections

Volume 10, Issue 02
April 8, 2024

The American Dream Mall is a testament to late-stage capitalism. A bricolage of entertainment with its indoor ski slope, waterpark, theme park, ice rink, and countless stores and restaurants, it escapes time; winter survives in boxes here despite New Jersey’s record low snowfall of late, while balmy, artificially lit atriums throughout its vast white interiors create a summer afternoon no matter the time. Like many behemoths of human intervention, the American Dream mall is liminal and strange and overstimulating: full of noises, smells, bright lights, colors. While seemingly teeming with people, many storefronts are empty or offering huge discounts; a contradiction between the demand for the elusive “third place” and the decline of interest for in-person shopping. The name itself raises the question of what qualifies as aspirational today - is the American Dream now to escape the daily sludge of life on the fantasy-flavored trains, rollercoasters and rideable animals that are available to pay-per-ride? Opened in 2019, a time when all other malls were beginning to close their doors, this mall serves as a stage: literally through the many events it hosts to grasp at relevancy, and abstractly through allowing humans to observe strangers informally in the perverse delight of people-watching.

Yet somehow, through the cacophony of human excess, there are birds singing. As they do in airports, Home Depots, and supermarkets, the starlings and sparrows find themselves entangled with humans at this mall. As it turns out, the artificial landscape of these massive liminal boxes are perfectly situated for birds to wander into. Scavenging off our scraps, using the trusses as perches, and taking advantage of the shelter and protection from predators keep birds coming back despite continual efforts from store owners to keep them out. These small, wild things infiltrating the most mundane human spaces interrupt what could otherwise be a completely unnatural experience. They are a reminder that while the clothes we shop for are made in Bangladesh and the coffee we drink comes from Ethiopia, we are in a paved lot in New Jersey, and the birds are still calling this place home. Humans try to distance ourselves from the rest of the animals by making the most disruptive habitats, but those efforts always fail to stop the effects of weathering; the flora, water, wind, sun, and other animals find their ways into our “human” spaces.

The bird is a symbol of freedom, of hope. They are an object of intense human fascination; we personify their ornamentation, their parenting and homemaking, and their awkward adolescence and covet their ability to fly. People have dedicated entire lifetimes to the study and watching of birds, and we have let them into human spaces through domestication and architecture. The chimney swift population increased in the United States when the most common building types had chimneys, and barn swallows nests are almost exclusively built on human-made structures. Yet as the world becomes more human made, it treats this entanglement less kindly. Rock pigeons, one of the earliest domesticated animals, are now considered feral in cities, not wild, and treated as nuisances when they wander into places they were once welcomed. Anti-bird spikes line the horizontal surfaces of our cities, and yet we can still hear bird song in the morning; the gentle cooing, chirping, and trilling that reminds us that we cannot seal off even in the most anthropic of places.