Director Jeremy Workman of Secret Mall Apartment, SXSW, 2024.

Director Jeremy Workman.

Jeremy Workman, the filmmaker responsible for the Grand Prize Winner for Best Documentary at SXSW in 2021 with “Lily Topples the World” (now streaming on MAX) returns to SXSW 2024  with “Secret Mall Apartment.”  His 2018 documentary “The World Before Your Feet” about Matt Green’s nomadic journey through New York City was interesting and eccentric. This third film, executive produced by Jesse Eisenberg, lives up to the last two, both of which were interesting and well-done.

How Jeremy lands on such unique projects would be an interesting question. How did he learn about the 8 Rhode Island young people—all artists—who found a forgotten 750 square foot space within a 3 and ½ million square foot mall? How did the young friends manage to turn it into a dusty living space/clubhouse that they occupied undetected for four years?

In the press notes, Workman notes that he learned of the project in Athens, Greece, while talking to an interesting fellow who turned out to be the Secret Mall Apartment Mastermind Michael Townsend. Until now, only Michael Townsend’s name had been attached to the secret mall apartment, but now the other participants emerge. They are an interesting, extremely well-educated, intelligent group that we can only hope represent the youth of 2003, now grown to middle age.


Overall view of the Providence Place Mall in Secret Mall Apartment.

Providence Place Mall.

The news that Providence, Rhode Island was going to build a mega-mall was not well-received by many of the locals. The feeling was that the mall had been built for rich people and the money it cost could have been used to help improve and restore the less-well-off sections of the city.  There were well-publicized fights to “save Eagle Square” and headlines like “Artists Fight to Hold the Fort,” meaning Fort Thunder, where artists and young people had settled.

Most of those artists and many others found themselves losing their space when gentrification and the mall project purchased their neighborhoods cheaply. The mall was not even designed with any entrances to the East, where minorities and others lived. The August, 1999 opening was not celebrated with joy, but with much resentment from many of the city’s residents.


Entrance to the Providence Place Mall featured in Secret Mall Apartment.

Providence Place Mall.

Of the 8 artists who joined Michael Townsend in infiltrating the mall and creating their own club house space, none had their names revealed at the time of the discovery of the underground project in 2007. The mall opened in August of 1999.  Adrianne Valdez Young, Michael’s wife at the time, says that she first suggested trying to turn the odd space into a sort of silent protest against what had happened to them and many other citizens of Providence in the wake of  big developers. But it was definitely Michael Townsend who was the creative spark and visionary that held the troupe together and directed its progress.

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


Michael Townsend and his 7 secret mall apartment friends.

The Mall Rats, Michael Townsend, ringleader, on far right.The other members of the troupe who helped smuggle 4,000 to 5,000 pounds of cinder block into the location in order to build a wall and carried furniture up a steep staircase to render it habitable followed Michael. They were Colin Bliss, James J.A. Mercer, Andrew Oesch, Greta Scheing, Jay Zehngebot and Emily Ustach. (And, of course, Andrea and Michael).

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

Why? How?


Secret Mall Apartment, SXSW, 2024.

The secret mall apartment.

The why can be answered by looking closely at ring-leader Michael Townsend. 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.” The projects for good that Michael  instigated included working for 15 years for Special Care, a facility with 14 autism cases and many cerebral palsy victims. Michael’s special kind of art could be used therapeutically.


What special kind of art? Something called “tape art,” which uses colored tape to create pictures on walls of the children’s hospital rooms. Michael also organized the Secret Mall Apartment team to go to Oklahoma City to create an Optimism Mural on the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing. He and his fellow artists also conducted a 5-year project to memorialize the first responders and 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 dummies reclining on couch-like furniture. The installation was so well-hidden that one admirer shared that she spent a long time trying to find her way to it through various underground tunnels and sewers, without success. In other words, nearly all of Michael’s art work is transient and impermanent.

Michael Townsend, Secret Mall Apartment Mastermind.

Michael Townsend from Secret Mall Apartment.

Michael’s brother, Brady, shared that Michael was always a creative soul who wanted to make art, teach art, have a positive effect on other people through art. To Michael, life is art and art is life. Said Michael, “For me, there’s no line between life and art.” When a friend is asked to describe Michael, she said, “He is a creative mind trying to express itself in every possible way.”

The interviewer responded, “Isn’t that art?” An astute observation.

Another thing that comes through loud and clear regarding Michael is that he has an amazing sense of humor. A very articulate young person, he is shown addressing the Providence city council about their plans to build the mall at the very outset. Later, when the mall clubhouse exists, he remarks  that a “gigantic achievement” would be if they could find a way to get mail inside the mall. Then the unnecessary junk mail sent to him FROM the mall could be sent TO the mall. This is manageable, because there is a mail drop service within the huge structure.


Moving furniture up the stairs to the secret mall apartment.

Secret Mall Apartment, SXSW, 2024.

The contortions and 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 and a small tunnel. Transporting the 72 cinder blocks into the space is documented. A “private entrance” was used but the team had to shimmy under a wire fence, and used milk bottles to ostensibly keep from being cut up by the wire on the bottom of the fence. When they were once accosted by mall guards (due to alarms going off (“a psychological deterrent, but apparently nothing else”) they said their excuses prevailed because “we were surrounded by the shield of white privilege.” Watching the male members of the troupe carry various pieces of furniture up the steep stairs in order to have a couch, a table and chairs, a breakfront, and even a waffle-maker was funny, but also astounding.

Secret Mall Apartment, SXSW, 2024

Entering the Secret Mall Apartment via the 1st floor bathroom


Entering the Secret Mall Apartment via the 1st floor bathroom at Providence Mall.

Secret Mall Apartment at SXSW 2024.







Secret Mall Apartment entry for cinder block project.

Secret Mall Apartment, 2024 SXS


Michael feels no sense of “stealing” anything from the mall, because, as he says, within “the belly of the beast” the troupe were like “a barnacle on a whale,” not hurting it in any way. The owners of the mall might feel differently and consider that debatable. They banned Michael from the mall in perpetuity.

The real kicker to this four-year-long weird saga of protest and refuge that the space represented is that the mall, like many others in the country following the pandemic, 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! Try it; you’ll like it.