New Jersey, like many other states, can only have one self-image. The Garden State’s denizens have no illusions as to their fundamental lack of sophistication. They prefer worn out jeans, wrinkled flannel, and a holed t-shirt. They are nostalgic for a time when doors were unlocked and Seaside was much cleaner. It is the same spirit that has Chris Christie positively orgasmic over Bruce Springsteen, and that had the State Assembly seriously considering making a Bon Jovi song the state anthem.
New Jersey’s landscape has been completely surrendered to the mall. The aggressive classiness of the Mall at Short Hills seems not only inconsistent with New Jersey’s idea of itself, but almost like an affront to it. The Mall at Short Hills sits at an oasis-like merging point of Route 24 and the John F. Kennedy Parkway, directly across from a five-star Hilton. The area is an unincorporated subsection of Millburn, one of the most affluent parts of the state. Short Hills was first made famous after it was satirized in Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus.
The land on which the mall sits was purchased in the late-1940s by Prudential Insurance which first built an open-air mall on it with now-forgotten department stores B. Altman and Bonwit Teller. In the 70s, Taubman Centers came in. A. Alfred Taubman is seen as an innovator of the modern mall. He served a nine-month prison sentence for price-fixing the auction circuit and was particularly fond of the terrazzo tiles lining the floors of the Short Hills Mall, which encouraged “traction” over the “friction” caused by using carpeting. Taubman enclosed the mall, along with its similarly upscale sister structures, the Beverly Center in Los Angeles, the City Creek Center in Salt Lake, and the IFC mall in Seoul. By the early 90s, B. Altman and Bonwit Teller were gone and had been replaced by Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom’s, and Saks Fifth Avenue.
From the outside, Short Hills Mall is about as inconspicuous and unimposing as any of the nearby office parks. It is only a ten-minute drive from my childhood home in Berkeley Heights, and my family would go there rather frequently (we often still do). The white to off-white floor tiles, walls and ceilings had a sterile, clean room effect. It had a Sharper Image and valet parking, but it also had a no-frills toy store and an A&W. In the days between Herbert Walker Bush and Clinton, Short Hills Mall was seemingly content with defining neighboring malls down on the brow scale.
The upward mobility continued apace through the 90s and into the 00s, reaching its apex just in time for the economic collapse. The no-frills toy store was replaced by an FAO Schwartz, which no longer exists. (Most children now split their time between places like Childsplayspot and Pottery Barn Kids.) Most entertainment stores—the FYE, Borders, and Suncoast—were gradually disappeared. Only GameStop has remained a constant, stubborn fixture from my adolescence to adulthood.
In their places came stores for luxury brands with interior design that looked like museums. It’s as if the companies knew that most people could now only afford to look and not buy. Nearly half of the 160-plus leases are dedicated to fashion brands like Anthropologie, Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Miu Miu, Chanel, Bulgari, Jimmy Choo, Prada, Salvatore Ferragamo, Ermenegildo Zegna, Georgio Armani, and Yves St. Laurent. It is, without a doubt one of the most profitable malls in the richest country on earth.
Anyone who appreciates change, even if they hate bourgeois affluence, can appreciate this mall. Repeat visits over a long period of time allow one to witness the metamorphosis as one store enters and another exits, almost like a living organism.
The state of New Jersey is basically a 21st century bacchanal of carnal anarchy, environmental plunder, political decay, and the basest expressions of late consumerism. But, like every other sub-republic of America, we are doing the best we can. The increasingly sophisticated retail palate and lack of sales tax on clothing is like flypaper to outsiders. It beckons New Yorkers to strike out down the Turnpike.
So many outsiders today see New Jersey more like a consumer colony than as a state. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; Jersey pride thrives best when it's opposed and insulted.