“Secret Mall Apartment” Is A Hit @ SXSW 2024

Jeremy Workman returns to SXSW this year with “Secret Mall Apartment.” Eight individuals found a way to convert unused space within the Providence Place Mall in Rhode Island. They used it as a clubhouse and as a protest against gentrification. They were successful from 2003 to 2007 before being discovered. The film is a hoot! It was a big crowd favorite at SXSW 2024.

In 2021 Workman’s documentary “Lily Topples the World” was the big documentary category winner at SXSW. This year’s quirky film, executive produced by Jesse Eisenberg, rivals the eccentric brilliance of Workman’s previous documentaries. Previously, an earlier SXSW entry was 2018’s “The World Beneath His Feet,” also entertaining.  Secret Mall Apartment made its World Premiere  at SXSW on Friday, March 8th.


Providence Place Mall
Providence Place Mall in Providence, Rhode Island.

The news in the late 1990s that Providence, Rhode Island was going to build a mega-mall was not well-received by the locals. Primarily, the feeling was that the mall had been built for rich people. Conversely, the money it cost could have been used to help improve the poorer sections of the city.

Most of those disgruntled residents were artists who found themselves losing their space when gentrification and the mall project purchased their neighborhoods cheaply. Therefore, the August 1999 mall opening sparked resentment, not joy.


Providence Place Mall, Providence, Rhode Island
Providence Place Mall facade.

Workman says that he learned of the750 square-foot secret mall apartment project hidden within the 3 and ½ million square foot Providence Place Mall while in Athens, Greece. He was talking to an interesting fellow. Subsequently, that interesting artist turned out to be the Mastermind of the secret mall apartment project, Michael Townsend.


Michael Townsend & friends
Michael Townsend (far right) and the 7 fellow mall rats of the Secret Mall Apartment.

Of the 7 other artists who joined Michael Townsend in creating their own clubhouse space within the mall beginning in 2003, none had their names revealed after the secret mall apartment’s discovery in 2007. Until this film, only Michael’s name had been attached to the secret mall apartment. But now the seven other participants’ identities emerge. These other artist friends of Michael’s were Colin Bliss, James J.A. Mercer, Andrew Oesch, Greta Scheing, Jay Zehngebot, and Emily Ustach. Also, Andrea Valdez Young then married Michael. They are an interesting, extremely well-educated, intelligent group, artists all.

When the group was finally discovered, in 2007, four years after they first began making and using the mall secret apartment, only Michael received any jail time. He spent one night in jail, was given 6 months probation, and had to pay court costs and restitution fees. He was banned from the Providence Place Mall in perpetuity. Michael brought about his own downfall when he took a friend to the secret room during daylight hours, a group no-no.


Secret Mall Apartment
Carrying furniture to the concealed secret mall apartment.

The troop smuggled 4,000 to 5,000 pounds of cinder block into the location to build a wall. They carried furniture, including a large couch, a breakfront, and a table and chairs up a steep ladder. Left-over food court food was consumed. The group watched all the movies in the mall’s theater located near their hideaway.

The group called the 750 square feet “the nowhere space” and described it as “totally Tomb Raider” In order to get electricity, they used an extension cord that was dropped to the first floor. The space was incredibly dark, cold in the winter, and hot in the summer. Eventually, it had dusty concrete walls that the team erected. Over the years they filmed themselves undertaking the difficult and illegal  project with a low-resolution Pentax camera small enough to fit inside an Altoids tin.


Michael Townsend
Michael Townsend, mastermind of the secret mall project.

By looking closely at the ring-leader Michael Townsend, motives for this unusual plan become clearer. The child of a military family who moved to 8 different places before the age of 7, (starting with Vista, California 1971-1975) Michael is “all about involving people in a collaborative process of art.” Michael is the kind of young man that you hope your son will grow up to be, although perhaps with a better-paying day job. His philosophy? “You have an opportunity to use the skills that you have to do something good.” Michael worked for 15 years for Special Care, a facility for autism cases and cerebral palsy victims, where his art was therapy.


Secret Mall Apartment secret entrance
Secret entrance to the secret mall apartment.
Secret Mall Apartment
Secret Mall Apartment secret entrance through 1st floor bathroom.

Michael’s unique art is called “tape art.” He uses colored tape to create pictures on walls of the children’s hospital rooms, a therapeutic way to involve the young patients. Michael also organized the Secret Mall Apartment team trip to Oklahoma City to create an Optimism Mural on the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing.

Michael and his fellow artists also conducted a 5-year project to memorialize the first responders, police and firefighters who died on 9/11. An early project that he constructed beneath a city bridge involved mannequins suspended by wire(s). Most of the mannequins were shown reclining on couch-like furniture. The installation was so well-hidden that one admirer said  she spent a long time trying to find her way to it through various underground tunnels and sewers, without success. All of Michael’s art work is impermanent.

“For me, there’s no line between life and art,” said Michael. A friend, asked to describe Michael,  said, “He is a creative mind trying to express itself in every possible way.” The interviewer responded, “Isn’t that art?” An astute observation.


Secret Mall Apartment
Shimmying under the fence to transport cinder blocks to the secret mall apartment.

The lengths to which the team went to (a) fix up the space and (b) avoid detection while fixing and utilizing the space are interesting and amusing. One way to gain access to their haven was through a first-floor bathroom via a small tunnel. Transporting the 72 cinder blocks into the space is documented via a “private entrance.”  The team had to shimmy under a wire fence.  They used milk bottles tied to their clothing to keep from being cut by the wire on the bottom of the fence. Watching the furnishing of the secret mall apartment is an astounding sight. The group even had a waffle-maker in their breakfront.


aerial view of Providence Plaza Mall apartment, featured in Secret Mall Apartment
(Michael Lisnet photo) Providence Place from the air.

Michael doesn’t feel he is “stealing” anything from the mall. Within “the belly of the beast” the troop were comparable to “a barnacle on a whale,” not hurting it in any way. The owners of the mall might feel differently.

The real kicker to this weird four-year saga of protest that the secret mall apartment represented is this: the Providence Park Mall, like many others in the country, nearly defaulted on its payments in 2022. As a result of their financial difficulties, the owners of the mall are considering retooling the gargantuan monster mall into residential spaces.

What an ironic ending to a terrific film!

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About Connie Wilson

Connie (Corcoran) Wilson (www.ConnieCWilson.com ) was the Quad City Times film and book critic for 15 years and has continued reviewing film uninterruptedly since 1970. She also publishes books in a variety of genres (www.quadcitieslearning.com), has taught writing or literature classes at 6 Iowa/Illinois colleges or universities as adjunct faculty, was Yahoo's Content Producer of the Year 2008 for Politics, is the author of It Came from the 70s: From The Godfather to Apocalypse Now, and writes on a variety of topics at her own blog, www.WeeklyWilson.com. Weekly Wilson is also the name of her podcast on the Bold Brave Media Global Network on Thursday nights at 7 p.m. (CDT).