Secret Mall Apartment
Colin Bliss and Greta Scheing inside the real secret mall apartment at the Providence Place Mall. Photo taken by Michael Townsend in 2005.

Jeremy Workman’s Secret Mall Apartment documentary had its world premiere last week at SXSW, marking the first time that all eight people involved in the secret apartment at the Providence Place Mall in the early 2000s have revealed their identities — and their reasons for pulling off the four-year long stunt.

The secret Providence Place Mall apartment has become something of an urban legend in Rhode Island, the state from which this reporter hails. But up until now, only the mastermind of the operation, professional artist Michael Townsend, has had his name in the headlines.

17 years later, his seven fellow artists and co-conspirators are coming forward to speak about the experience. In Secret Mall Apartment, Adriana Valdez Young, Colin Bliss, James Mercer, Andrew Oesch, Greta Scheing, Emily Ustach, and Jay Zehngebot all share their memories of living — well, more like frequently hanging out — in the abandoned alcove at the mall, which they used as a meeting space to plan art projects and sometimes spend the night.

Townsend was charged with misdemeanor trespassing in 2007 after mall security discovered the 750-square-foot, cinderblock alcove that he and his friends had been occupying since 2003. The artists found the space just sitting there, unused and mostly empty save for some scattered trash leftover from construction in 1999. Located above the parking garage and somewhere beneath the mall’s IMAX movie theater, they’d decided to make it into a clubhouse of sorts, outfitting it with a couch, a china cabinet, a table and chairs, and even a PlayStation, which they used by tapping into the mall’s electricity.

Secret Mall Apartment
How Michael Townsend looks today, sitting in a field in front of the Providence Place Mall in Providence, RI. Photo by Jeremy Workman.

Townsend’s only punishment for trespassing was spending one night in jail, after which he was sentenced to six months of probation. Other than that, his legal troubles have long been over — except that he’s forever banned from setting foot inside the Providence Place Mall.

Jeremy Workman on the Secret Mall Apartment at the Providence Place Mall

“They didn’t know what to do with him,” Workman said of the mall security. “There’s no Michael Townsend criminal record because the mall didn’t really have the authority to do that. And if we really think about it, the mall was kind of embarrassed about the situation. 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.”

Since 2007, the Providence Place Mall has changed ownership multiple times. It is currently owned by Brookfield Properties, a retail group that owns shopping centers around the world. Reps for Brookfield Properties and the Providence Place Mall did not immediately respond to MovieMaker’s request for comment.

Now, Workman’s fascinating documentary — executive produced by Jesse Eisenberg — tells the full story of the iconic mall apartment for the first time. It’s one that has sometimes been obfuscated in the news coverage surrounding it, having been described over the years as essentially just a group of squatters dwelling inside an abandoned section of the mall. But according to Secret Mall Apartment, that’s not what really happened.

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Yes, the stunt was an “f— you” to the real estate developers who tore down the buildings where the artists were living in the late 1990s when the mall project began construction, Workman says. But it was also an installation art piece, a commentary on capitalism and the gentrification of Providence. Rather than living full-time in the mall apartment, the artists actually used it as a headquarters for their art collective from which they planned many art projects, including memorial murals for 911 and the Oklahoma City Bombing.

“It was like a prank. It was a lark. It was a stand. It was an artwork. It was rebellion. But they thought it had real meaning. And that was what, I think, got lost a little bit when the story broke,” Workman said.

Townsend, Valdez Young, Bliss, Mercer, Oesch, Scheing, Ustach, and Zehngebot are all still working artists, Workman says, though they don’t all live in Providence anymore.

The fact that Workman was able to make the documentary at all is quite a feat. Many filmmakers have tried to persuade Townsend and the other artists to participate in a film in the past, he said, but the director — whose prior work includes the Discovery+ documentary Lily Topples the World and the Kino Lorber doc The World Before Your Feet — was the first to gain Townsend’s trust. And it turned out that Townsend had dozens of hours of home movie footage documenting the first few years of the mall apartment from the inside, much of which is shown in Secret Mall Apartment.

Workman hopes that the ripped-from-the-headlines nature of the mall apartment story will lure audiences in — and once they’ve gotten their fix of watching the artists sneak past security and creep through the labyrinthian backrooms of the mall, they’ll be pleasantly surprised to discover that the real story is much more sincere.

“You hear the story and you’re like, Oh my god, this is sensational. But I don’t want to make it feel tabloidy,” Workman says. “I don’t want it to make it like, Oh my god, they live in a mall. We could lead with that, and that would obviously get people excited and get people interested, but I wanted the movie to be that kind of classic Trojan horse a little bit. You come in with that idea, and then you come away from it with all this kind of deeper, deeper stuff.”

Secret Mall Apartment is currently seeking distribution. Workman hasn’t set up a Providence screening yet, but he’s working on it.

“There’s a lot of interest. There’s a lot of people being like, ‘You have to play it at the Providence Place Mall!'” Workman laughs. “I’m like, yeah, I know.”

Main Image: Colin Bliss and Greta Scheing inside the real secret mall apartment at the Providence Place Mall. Photo taken by Michael Townsend in 2005.