He Built A Secret Home In A Mall, And Lived There For 4 Years Before Being DiscoveredStories
Back in 2007, a young man called Michael Townsend was showing a woman around his apartment when, all of a sudden, three burly men turned up at his front door. Without any explanation, they rushed forward and detained him - but these weren’t regular cops, they were mall cops! That’s right – police of the Paul Blart variety. What were they doing outside Michael’s home, and why were they detaining him? Let's find out.
If we’re going to start at the beginning, then we need to rewind all the way back to 1999. This was the golden era of bell-bottom jeans revival, Britney spears, and – most importantly – mall development. In Providence, Rhode Island, the brand-new Providence Place mall had just been built. The 1.4 million sq. ft development boasted 160 stores and services, straddling the Woonasquatucket River as well as Amtrack’s Northeast Corridor train line. With so much going on, this wallet-busting $500 million project was clearly designed to be a one-stop shopping destination that would help revitalise the city.
But as it was being constructed, our protagonist Michael Townsend - a local Providence resident and artist - noticed something unusual. His running route took him past the mall’s construction site every day, and as it was being built up, he spotted a section of the site that didn’t make sense.
Right by the river, there were two large walls that almost touched, but not quite, leaving a gap in the middle that led to a large spot where nothing was going on. The space was too oddly shaped to be a store, and too angular to be part of the parking complex. It looked like some sort of design accident; a strange space that existed purely because of the angles of the other purposefully designed areas around it.
Weird as it was, Michael didn’t think much of it and carried on running by. However, a little over four years later in 2003, another group of developers set their sights on Providence. Seeing the success of the marvellous mall, they began scouring the city for sites to plant even more retail units. After a thorough search, they figured that the city’s historic mill district would be the perfect place to rejuvenate and rebuild!
Unfortunately, this was where Michael lived. He and a group of artists resided as a collective in one of the district’s old warehouses, known as Fort Thunder. Devastated by the decision, Michael spent 2 years alongside many other residents to save his home in the mill district. But sadly, it was all in vain, and the colourful Fort Thunder ended up being replaced by a parking lot.
While being displaced would kill most people’s motivation, the devastating event actually hit Michael with a bolt of inspiration. At the time, he was a drawing instructor at Rhode Island’s School of Design, and a founder of the city’s Tape Art movement, so he reached out to his artistic friends for help. After much discussion, he and seven other artists decided to create a project that would highlight the amount of liveable space being sacrificed to soulless retail development in Providence. They named the project Trummerkind, a German term that poetically translates to ‘children of the ruins’.
To bring Trummerkind to life, they would daringly try and live for just 1 week inside the Providence Place mall without leaving. To do this, they needed one space inside that was safe from the eyes of the mall’s security team. So, it couldn’t be part of a store, nor could it be a section of the parking lot. It was at this point, in a streak of creative justice, that Michael suddenly remembered the weird void he’d spotted all those years ago!
He went to investigate whether or not it was still there, and sure enough, the developers had never bothered to seal it up! Even though it was difficult to make out, a long, dark crevice meant the space was still accessible from the ground level. The concealed space was crammed full of things that the construction company had left behind 6 years before – like broken wood and bags of zip ties. Clearly, no one had been here since, and being behind such a slight gap meant it was safe from any middling mall security.
Even though the room was undeniably narrow, it was big. How big? At least 750 sq. ft big. That’s about the average size of a one-bed apartment in New York City. This meant that Michael and his group were sitting on some prime, yet completely free, real estate right in the middle of the mall!
The hidden space was more perfect than Michael could have dreamed, and upon seeing how much potential it had, the plan suddenly changed. They began wondering what a developer would do if they were in their shoes, and so they decided to turn the unused space into their own private condo! Instead of living in the mall for a week, now they’d try to live in the mall indefinitely. But the room just wouldn’t do in its abandoned state, so Michael and co got to work clearing it up.
They hauled out all the debris by filling their backpacks and buckets with all the dirt and grime they could carry, dumping it outside without anyone noticing. But when they came back in, they brought gallons of water, tinned food, power cords, lights, blankets, silverware - everything they needed to slowly start turning the space into a home. They set about building a wall out of cinderblocks to hide the naughty nook from anyone else who might be lurking around the cavernous complex.
Then, with a stroke of ingenuity, they installed a plain white utility door to conceal the entrance, making the entire set-up look like any other innocuous storage space from the outside. By plugging a series of extension cables into the mall’s internal power system, they soon had electricity to power all their everyday gadgets. Clamp lights lit the space up, and an old TV hooked up to a PlayStation provided all the entertainment they needed! The only thing they were missing was running water, but thanks to the mall’s late-night movie theatre, even night-time trips to the mall’s toilet didn’t look that suspicious. Unless they had the guts to waltz over there in their pyjamas!
They decorated the place with items they bought from the mall, but they also brought in some of their own furnishings as well – including a couch and an absolutely huge China cabinet! But it wasn’t an easy task. To access the room, every piece of furniture had to ascend an incredibly steep metal ladder. Michael even filmed one of their attempts to show just how much work getting a single cabinet up the steps really took. But this begs another question: How did they manage to sneak all this stuff in without anyone noticing?
Well, it turns out that by blending in with the flow of the crowds of people visiting the mall, they could conceal all their comings and goings pretty easily! So much so, that they actually moved most of their stuff into this place in broad daylight! Even though they were confident about their concealment, they didn’t want word about the room to spread, so all eight artists made an agreement not to share the space with anyone else. I guess that meant the first rule of the secret mall condo was ‘you do not talk about secret mall condo’! And the second rule of secret mall condo was… ‘you do not talk about secret mall condo’!
This secret set-up was so perfect that people often stayed within the walls of the mall for up to three weeks at a time. It was all shared equally, with the friends often lending it out to whoever needed it most. It was a bit like a real-life room of requirements - shout out to all the Harry Potter fans who got that reference! They fully expected that mall cops would eventually find their crafty condo, but as the weeks turned into months, and the months turned into years, security never came knocking.
After the stealthy set-up reached its 4th year of undiscovered glory, all 8 artists were starting to get quite comfortable. So, they decided to see if they could actually live in the space full time for a year. They began looking at plumbing options, which would involve bringing in a huge water tank so that they could have a fully working kitchen as well as a flushing toilet. Michael was even considering installing some stylish hardwood floors! But that’s – ironically - when they had the rug pulled out from under them! One day in 2007 they returned to the apartment, only to discover they’d been well and truly rumbled.
Their utility door had been kicked in and their precious PlayStation had been stolen, along with some of their art and a photo album! Weirdly though, nothing else of value had been taken – not the TV, not the silverware, just the really personal stuff. It became stomach-churningly clear that this wasn’t any ordinary break-in. Even so, they couldn’t exactly call the police; the mall was private property, meaning the cops would probably arrest them for trespassing! But the worst part was that it was clear someone else knew about the room.
It looked like someone had broken the first rule of the secret mall condo! Badly spooked, they decided to switch things up. They would no longer use the room during the day, sneaking in only under the cover of night when their chances of getting caught were much lower. They also doubled down on their one and only rule – don’t talk about the secret mall condo or share it with anybody!
But, what’s the point of having a super cool hideout if you can’t show it off to anyone else? Unfortunately, this is where Michael made a huge mistake. He was hosting a visiting artist from Hong Kong called Jaffa, and desperately wanted to show her the project that had turned into a 4-year labour of love. Without thinking, he guided her into the mall in the middle of the day and showed her the room. Michael gave her the full tour and, needless to say, she was very impressed!
But then, just as they were about to leave, the eerie crackle of several walkie talkies sounded from the other side of the door. Oh no, they’d been found… by mall cops! Michael panicked and tried to think, but there was no other way out. They were trapped! As he opened the door, three security guards stormed forward and detained Michael on the spot! It turned out that two newly hired mall cops had discovered the room and were responsible for the earlier break-in. Instead of clearing everything out, they’d taken personal items so that they could try and identify the culprits! Clearly, they’d been stalking the entrance, waiting for someone to return on their watch. And the foolish decision to visit during the day meant Michael’s 4-year project was about to come to a crashing halt.
He and Jaffa were handed over to the police and arrested for trespassing, but after being interrogated, Jaffa was released without any further action. Michael, on the other hand, wasn’t so lucky. He was sent to criminal court where the mall’s owner – General Growth Properties – had hired a lawyer, who was ready to take Michael to the cleaners. The prosecution brought out a long list of charges, including breaking and entering and felony trespass. But as they did, they also listed every single item Michael’s cohort had brought onto the property. This included the couch, the china hutch, the silverware with matching glassware for 8, a coffee table, the PlayStation, a copy of grand theft auto, the lights… the list went on.
As the long list was read out, the judge became less concerned with the charges, and more impressed by Michael’s sheer audacity. So impressed was he, that the judge eventually declared that the creation of the apartment was not a criminal act. Instead of a hard time or a hefty fine, he handed Michael a misdemeanour for trespassing and sent him on his way. This slap on the wrist was nothing short of a miracle – somehow, Michael had lived on and off in the mall for 4 years, and - even though he’d been caught – it’d cost him absolutely nothing! But it didn’t mean he walked away unscathed. After vacating the mall, security handed Michael a slip of paper. On it was a map of the mall with a thick red line around the outside, indicating Michael was no longer allowed to step foot inside the property.
This was usually handed out to brawlers, shoplifters, or anyone else caught causing trouble on the premises. Clearly, they thought Michael might try and whip up another secret apartment in the walls of the mall. Maybe they thought he’d try and colonise a corner of Macy’s or make a fort out of towels in the Bed, Bath and Beyond! Either way, Michael was banned. Even now, almost 15 years later, Michael still isn’t allowed to step foot near the mall. He still lives close by, but if he wants to go downtown, he can’t use the paths lining the river that cut underneath the mall. Sure, it’s a small price to pay compared to all the charges he faced, but after more than a decade, you’d think the mall’s owners would be big enough to forgive and forget! So, Michael is taking his punishment on the chin and, diligently, hasn’t stepped foot on the property since.
While Michael hasn’t been shy about sharing the incredible story of this unique space, there’s a chance he might not be telling the whole truth. I don’t know if you’ve been to a mall recently, but almost nothing escapes the ever-watchful eyes of mall security. They usually check every nook and cranny of buildings like this, so being able to build and hide a secret room under their noses without being discovered sounds slightly suspicious. Surprisingly, The Rhode Island Reddit community helped shed some light on this matter.
Some users claim they were friends with security guards who knew about the apartment, but instead of crying to their boss, they used it as a glorified break room! If they’d managed to strike a deal with Michael and his friends, turning a blind eye to the room’s existence could explain why security sweeps never picked it up. Although, I’m not sure I buy that story either. I mean, could you picture a typical mall cop struggling through this impossibly narrow entrance and clambering up that super steep ladder? And all just to spend a few minutes hanging out in a space that probably had fewer features than their own break room? Yeah, I don’t know whether I can believe that. But I bet every mall cop who worked there tells the same story!
Thankfully, this wasn’t the end of Michael’s story. And technically, it wasn’t the beginning either! During the 1990s, Michael’s cohort had constructed several installations like Trummerkind all over Providence. Their piece ‘Tunnel’, for instance, was set up in an old drainage tunnel that was only accessible through a manhole cover. There, they put up a bunch of malevolent looking mannequins, all uniquely dressed in just one of the artists' belongings. All along the tunnel, mannequins were poised and pinned into position, making it look like an elaborate underground spiderweb! It was locked up and left for adventurers to discover, although I bet it scared the life out of the first person who unwittingly found it!
As weird as it may look, what this means is that there might be more installations - like Trummerkind and Tunnel - hidden throughout Providence that nobody has discovered yet. Maybe there’s an underground apartment underneath the Taco Bell? Could there be a secret rooftop pool in the Rhode Island Hospital? What about a tennis court hidden inside a Cathedral? Ok, perhaps that last one does sound ridiculous but considering there was an apartment hidden inside a mall for 4 years, I guess anything’s possible!