NARRATOR: Alongside a lonely highway in Central New Jersey, a deathly quiet falls over a deserted suburban shopping center.
ROB BELL, ADVENTURER: You drive by, and you see houses, and farms, and all of a sudden you see this site. And it’s almost completely deserted. And you ask yourself, what could have happened?
JIM MEIGS, JOURNALIST: Every once in a while, you will see an abandoned strip mall, and it’s obvious why. The buildings are old and not in good shape, with peeling paint and crumbling curbs. But this one looks brand new.
NARRATOR: What powerful forces could have emptied this promising shopping destination?
ANDREW GOUGH, HISTORIAN: The only signs of civilization are the cars passing back and forth on the highway. But none of them stop here. It’s uncanny.
LYNETTE NUSBACHER, MILITARY HISTORIAN: The buildings all look brand new, but it’s clear that no one has ever set foot in them. Who could have built this vast complex and then just walked away from it? Where are the shoppers? Where are the tenants?
ROMA AGRAWAI, ENGINEER: It’s just so strange. You look in the windows, and you can see the certificate of occupancy. The mall looks ready to move in. It’s structurally sound and everything. You can look around and just imagine a Liberty Travel here, a Dollar Tree there. But there isn’t anything.
NARRATOR: What once was a promising site for commercial development is now an empty husk of a strip mall. What could have caused this site to become abandoned so quickly?
BELL: You get the feeling like a major piece of the puzzle is missing, like there’s something unexpected and different about this site.
NUSBACHER: One thing that’s fascinating about this site is that it’s so modern. Which means that, whoever abandoned this place, it couldn’t be Nazis. Which is odd, because if you watch this show, it’s usually Nazis.
MEIGS: On one hand, it’s just an empty strip mall in suburban New Jersey. But on the other hand, it’s a powerful metaphor for loss and isolation in the twenty-first century. It’s extremely unsettling.
NARRATOR: This is the Princeton Meadows Shopping Center.
AGRAWAI: Work on this site started in 2019, with plans for construction to be complete by summer 2020. The weather in the winter was mild, and the contractors made good progress. By March 2020, the site was nearly ready to open.
NARRATOR: But in March 2020, an outbreak of a virus named COVID-19 would wreck all the grand plans for the opening of Princeton Meadows. Anthony Harper was one of the developers.
ANTHONY HARPER, REAL ESTATE DEVELOPER: It’s not been an easy year for us. I mean, it’s not been an easy year for anybody. We had several tenants lined up. CVS. Einstein’s Bagels. I had a couple of feelers from Orvis, you know, they sell all that fancy outdoor gear? They all backed out as soon as the lockdown started.
MEIGS: There’s a certain poetry to the silence, a certain splendor to the absence.
BELL: All that effort that went into building something like this, and here it is empty. You walk around, and you think of everything that could be here. A nail salon. A hardware store. Maybe over there in the corner you could have a Five Guys.
GOUGH: I haven’t been inside a Five Guys in over a year now. You can get takeout but it’s cold by the time you get it home. It just isn’t the same.
AGRAWAI: All I want is to go to a restaurant with my husband without worrying about getting sick. I’m talking a date night here. Just to sit and talk for a while. It was such a normal thing, and now it isn’t.
NARRATOR: Princeton Meadows now faces a difficult time in an uncertain future.
HARPER: So from a financial standpoint, we’re taking a severe hit. And that’s not a great place to be, but there are so many people in this community that are hurting so much more than my partners and I are. You hate to see it. A lot of the crew that built this strip mall are out of work now—have been for months.
MEIGS: I look at one of the online tracking pages every day, and the numbers just keep going up and up. I remember when losing a thousand people a day was such a scary figure. Now, it’s four times that, and it’s heartbreaking.
NUSBACHER: I think back to the 1940’s, during the Blitz, and people in London wondered when that was going to end, and it didn’t, not for years. Is this close to the end of the pandemic, or is it just beginning?
HARPER: I got a call the other day from a guy who wanted to open a shoe repair place here, and I nearly cried. I mean, it doesn’t sound like much, a shoe repair place. But it was something hopeful. I feel that we’ve lost that in a lot of ways.
BELL: I’m an adventurer. A world traveler. I spent six months in a studio apartment in Hoboken, sheltering in place. You can’t imagine what that’s like.
GOUGH: Twenty years from now, we’ll look back on this time, and I don’t think any of us will ever remember it fondly. All of us have been touched by this cruel disease, in ways we won’t ever fully understand. And those that have lost a loved one will never forget that impact.
HARPER: I know it’s just one shopping center. There are a million of them in New Jersey. But to see it empty like this, day after day, when it should be filled with life, is just so depressing and sad. I keep thinking, one day, we’ll have tenants, and customers, and things will get back to normal again. All we can do is hold on until that happens.
NARRATOR: The tides of history move on, racing past us all. Princeton Meadows stands as a mute reminder of the ravages of disease and time.