How Did a Guy Live in a Mall for Four Years?

“[It is a] room that a person can only enter when they have real need of it. Sometimes it is there and sometimes it is not, but when it appears, it is always equipped for the seeker’s needs.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

The Room of Requirement is a magical place that exists only in the imaginary world of Harry Potter. Only those who are in the room know of its existence. To the rest of the occupants of Hogwart’s, it’s as if the room and its inhabitants aren’t even there.

The Room of Requirement may be a work of fiction, but when a Rhode Island artist was in need of a place to stay, something very similar showed up in a local mall. What started as a daring experiment turned into an amazing adventure of living, undetected, in that mall for nearly four years.

The Providence Place Mall opened in 1999 as part of a grand plan to revitalize the Rhode Island city. When completed, the $500 million project was intended to represent the pinnacle of the mall-shopping experience.

If you are from the Millennial Generation or younger, this may require a bit of explaining. Once upon a time, way back in the late 20th century, in the dark and antiquated era before the internet, there was no such thing as online shopping. The closest one could come to the experience was browsing through a massive holiday catalog from one store, calling a phone number, verbally placing an order, and waiting 6-8 weeks for the item(s) to be delivered. If you needed something faster, you had to go to a store and get it yourself.

Quaint, isn’t it?

If that sounds weird, consider that this took place in a culture that did not have cell phones, text messaging, emails, or social media. Those who desired human interaction were forced to — we shudder at the thought — actually hang out with other members of the species.

The mall was the late 20th century’s way to combine shopping and socializing. Malls were massive structures with 2 or more large anchor stores, combined with dozens of smaller specialty stores. All of these were under one roof in a micro-community with restaurants, playgrounds, and comfortable places to gather.

As the Providence Place Mall was being constructed, the residents of Providence looked on, eager for its grand opening. It promised to be a one-stop shopping destination, allowing shoppers to get everything they could want without having to leave the building.

Inside the Providence Place Mall

One person who was particularly observant was Michael Townsend. He was a local artist who lived near the construction site. His daily running route took him past the mall, giving him a close-up view of its progress.

It was during one of his runs that he noticed something a bit odd about the design. Two of the large walls converged and came close to touching without actually connecting. At the time, he simply thought it was odd. “Why would you build two walls with enough space to squeeze through them?” The strange configuration created a space that couldn’t be used as a shop or storage. Townsend filed the oddity away in the back of his mind and didn’t give it any more thought for several years.

The revitalization movement that led to the construction of the mall would come to affect Townsend in ways he could not have imagined. He lived with several other artists in a building called Fort Thunder. Four years after the mall opened, Fort Thunder became the target of developers who wanted to renovate that neighborhood. Townsend and the other residents were forced to leave their homes as Fort Thunder was demolished and replaced with a supermarket parking lot.

Townsend found himself without a home. Most people in that situation would buy or rent other accommodations. Artists don’t think the way everyone else does, however. Townsend and his friends had spent much of the past decade finding little-known and little-used spaces and converting them into artistic projects. One of them, for example, was a tunnel that they filled with mannequins and spider webs. They saw the massive Providence Place Mall as a symbol of the uncaring corporate mentality that would strip people of their homes. They wanted to reclaim their space and autonomy — at least symbolically. To do this, they would make the mall their next art project. This time, instead of making a place for mannequins, they would use it for themselves. Their goal was to try to live in the mall for a week without leaving.

That’s when Townsend remembered the peculiarity of the converging walls during the construction phase. He wondered what had become of that seemingly-unusable space. He went to the mall and saw that the space between the two walls had never been enclosed. The long, dark entrance to the space was difficult to spot, but it was there.

He squeezed into the area above a storage room in the parking garage and found a long and narrow room. It was cluttered with remnants from the construction work. Broken boards, screws, and rubbish were left there, now forgotten. The area was about 750 square feet of unused, forgotten space.

Inside the secret apartment

Townsend and his friends decided it would be the perfect place for their experiment. They would claim the abandoned space as their own. Given this goldmine of a location, their initial plans to live there for just a week quickly morphed into living there indefinitely.

The only access to the space was through a narrow gap from the outside or through a storage room by use of a ladder. This made the renovation of the space a bit challenging. The friends emptied the space of debris by filling their backpacks with dirt and trash and carrying it out of the mall. When they returned, they would bring things they needed, such as lights, extension cords, and water jugs. They brought cinderblocks to build a wall to hide the space from anyone who might be curious why light was suddenly coming from a once-forgotten place.

You might expect that most of the work would take place under the cover of darkness. On the contrary, almost all of the activity took place during the day, even when it came to bringing in a sofa and a china cabinet. “We avoided the night,” explained Townsend, “and we worked with the ebb and flow of the mall. We were just part of the living organism of its daily activities.”

When the apartment became livable, the friends rotated their time, living in the mall for weeks at a time. The mall provided almost everything they needed, including movie theaters that remained open late into the night.

Inside the secret apartment

This went on for quite some time — four years, in fact — with no indication that anyone had a clue of what was going on in the midst of the mall’s operations. One day, the artists’ confidence was shaken when they returned to their apartment to find the door kicked open. Someone had entered and taken their Playstation and some personal effects. Strangely, the intruders left the television and silverware.

The artists were spooked. For four years, they had avoided detection, but clearly, someone had figured out what they were doing. They decided to change their routine. They would only stay there at night when the odds of being seen were low. They also recommitted themselves to one of their first rules — don’t tell anyone about what they’re doing.

It was about this time that Townsend was hosting an artist who was visiting from Hong Kong. The artist’s name was Jaffa. Townsend was driving her to the bus station to leave the city on the final day of her visit. The drive took them past the mall. It was too good of an opportunity to pass up.

Townsend took a quick detour, parked the car, and brought Jaffa into the mall. They entered the secret apartment, where the visiting artist was given a grand tour of the living space. No longer was it a forgotten cluttered space. Four years saw a transformation into comfortable accommodations. It included a four-seater couch, a loveseat, benches, a china cabinet filled with stemware and dishes, a dining room table with four seats, a television, and a Playstation 2. The artists were working on the next phase of the project, which would involve the installation of a full kitchen and a flush toilet. They were also planning on installing wood floors.

Jaffa was duly impressed, and Townsend was proud to have been able to show off the results of a lot of hard work. As they turned toward the door to leave, all thoughts of pride were quickly replaced by panic. They heard the sound of a walkie-talkie on the other side of the door. Two mall security guards were waiting for them.

It turned out that the earlier break-in was not conducted by thieves. It was mall security personnel who had taken some of the personal items in hopes of identifying the newly-discovered trespassers. Townsend made the investigation much easier by returning to the apartment during daylight hours.

Mall security called the police and turned Townsend over to them. He was charged with a string of criminal offenses. Ultimately, he pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor trespassing charge. He was sentenced to six months probation and ordered to stay away not only from the no-longer-secret apartment but from the entire Providence Place Mall. He successfully completed his probation, but the ban from the mall is for life.

Townsend still lives in Providence in an apartment that is about twice the size of the one he helped build. He and his artist friends continue to make art as a member of the Trummerkind (German for “children of the ruins”) art collective, on whose website you can learn more about the secret apartment and his other projects.

2 replies »

  1. Fascinating that this went on for as long as it did. I’m assuming they just used the mall’s public bathrooms when nature called, though unless they had gym memberships, who knows how they showered? My mind goes to strange places with stories like these! Even stranger, this would be a GREAT vampire lair!


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