8 Friends Built a Secret Home in a Mall and Lived in it for a Year Without Being Caught

By: Alyssa Miller | Published: Mar 20, 2024

Jeremy Workman’s “Secret Mall Apartment” documentary premiered last week at SXSW, bringing to light all eight people involved in the secret apartment at the Providence Place Mall in the early 2000s.

The four-year-long stunt done by these eight artists, who revealed their identities for the first time at the film’s premiere, explained why they did it.

Who Created the Secret Mall Apartment? 

Rhode Island leaders struggling to keep the capital city financially alive quickly embraced the construction of the Providence Place Mall in the late 1990s as a sign of urban renewal.

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An overview of the escalators in the Providence Place Mall

Source: JJBers/Flickr

However, eight artists–Michael Townsend, Adriana Valdez Young, Colin Bliss, James Mercer, Andrew Oesch, Greta Scheing, Emily Ustach, and Jay Zehngebot–decided that the mall would be something else to them.

What Is the Secret Mall Apartment? 

In what has largely been an urban legend in Rhode Island, the secret apartment that the artist shared was a hidden alcove in the shopping complex’s garage. The artist found the 750-square foot space tucked away, sitting there unused and scattered with trash leftover from the construction of the mall.

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Two men sitting on a couch in the secret mall apartment

Source: SXSW

The alcove was located above the parking garage, somewhere beneath the mall’s IMAX movie theaters.

The Apartment Was a Functioning and Livable Space

For four years, no one discovered the secret apartment, where the artist would plan art projects and sometimes spend the night.

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Two people sitting at a table eating a meal in "Secret Mall Apartment"

Source: SXSW

It had all of the necessities to make it a comfortable space: a sofa, TV, video games, a microwave, and a cinderblock wall. To power their electronics, the group tapped into the mall’s electricity.

The Apartment Was a Protest Against the Mall

While the mall became a sign of financial vitality for the city, the artist saw their makeshift home as a humorous protest against the capitalist forces that threatened the city’s artistic community.

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Person Writing Illustration in Spiral Notebook

Source: Craig Adderley/Pexels

“The story is kind of a Trojan horse, where you go in expecting one thing and it’s constantly subverting your preconceptions as you watch it,” Workman says (via MovieMaker). “You hear the premise, and you’re like, ‘Oh, this is gonna be like one of those crazy prank movies.’ But it’s using that to explore these deeper ideas about art and what it means, as well as gentrification and how we’re living in the shadows of these corporations.”

Authorities Discovered and Charged One Artist

Four years later, mall security discovered the alcove occupied by Townsend and his friends, leading to his arrest and charging with misdemeanor trespassing. Although Townsend spent a night in jail, his legal troubles started to pile on.

A security guard discovering the secret mall apartment

Source: SXSW

He received six months of probation and a lifetime ban from the Providence Place Mall. “They didn’t know what to do with him,” Workman said of the mall security.

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No One Knew What To Do With the Apartment After It Was Discovered

Workman continued to say that the mall security did not know what to do with Townsend since they didn’t have the authority to do anything about the secret apartment. “And if we really think about it, the mall was kind of embarrassed about the situation,” Workman said.

Two men sitting on a couch in the secret mall apartment

Source: SXSW

Workman continued: “These people had lived in this apartment under their nose and security couldn’t find it, and I think they were just like, you know what, we don’t want to make this any bigger than it is. Let’s just kind of let him go. He’s banned from the mall, but let’s be done with this.”

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The Documentary That Reveals the Apartment’s Full History

Workman’s documentary tells the full story of the legendary mall apartment for the first time, breaking the idea that new coverage created that a group of squatters were dwelling inside an abandoned section of the mall.

A woman with long dark hair wearing a green hat painting on a wall

Source: Brett Sayles/Pexels

“Secret Mall Apartment” follows Townsend and his seven collaborators as they recall the complicated logistics that went into moving furniture and construction material into a busy mall. “It’s almost like a heist movie,” Workman says.

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Recreating the Secret Mall Apartment 

Workman also had access to hours of footage that Townsend and his fellow artists captured while spending time in the secret mall apartment. Videos also show the planning that went into crafting the hideaway.

A person sitting in a chiar with their back toward a table in "Secret Mall Apartment"

Source: SXSW

The filmmakers and original artists used these videos to build a replica of the apartment, as mall personnel had dismantled the original one after its discovery.

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Telling This Story Now Matters More Than We Know It

The secret mall apartment became a much larger topic of discussion as it grew into a notorious piece of art. “What’s so interesting about this film is the way that it becomes this larger discussion about housing, gentrification, urban development, and even about class and race as these artists contemplate their own kind of privilege,” says Jesse Eisenberg, the producer of the documentary (via Variety).

Jesse Eisenberg sitting on a stage during a ComicCon panel

Source: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

“They were allowed to do something on a lark without the threat of heavy policing,” Eisenberg said.

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Why Did Jesse Eisenberg Produce the Documentary?

Eisenberg joined the project after feeling a personal connection to the story of the infamous Providence Place artist. “As somebody in the arts, I just kept thinking that what they’re doing is so pure, and so perfect,” Eisenberg says.

Jesse Eisenberg talking into a microphone on a stage with a blue background at a film festival

Source: Harald Krichel/Wikimedia Commons

“It’s art for art’s sake. I kind of viewed it from that perspective. My favorite thing to do in my life is–I write plays, I finish my play, and we do a little reading, and it’s my favorite day of the year. … [T]hen, unfortunately, it gets commodified. And we have to sell tickets, and it becomes this product. And so when I’m watching this movie, I’m just taken away as an artist, the purity of their art and that kind of imagination.”

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Where Can You Watch “Secret Mall Apartment”?

While “Secret Mall Apartment” is currently looking for distribution, Workman hopes that the documentary will bring the artists’ intent to the forefront, blocking out the clicky headlines that suggest the apartment was nothing more than a living space.

Red Theater Chair Lot Near White Concrete Pillars

Source: Pixabay/Pexels

“I feel like this is going to be really appreciated and understood there,” says Workman. The documentary, currently circulating the film festival circuit, might soon feature in a film festival near you.

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