The Accidental Room

RM: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

In downtown Providence, Rhode Island, there is a large plot of land that sits on the bank of the Woonasquatucket River. In 1838, it was the home of The Rhode Island State Prison, which was notorious for its horrid smell, dreary outward appearance, and reputation for solitary confinement. Later, the land housed the Continuing Education campus for the University of Rhode Island and after that, a dirt parking lot called “Ray’s Park & Lock.

VL: Then, in 1999, in a grand effort to revitalize the city and with much fanfare, the Providence Place Mall was opened.

RM: That’s Vanessa Lowe, producer of the podcast Nocturne.

VL: The mall, costing 500 million dollars, was what was known as a “super regional,” a one-stop shopping destination housing everything consumers could possibly want or need in a totally enclosed space. Partially funded by taxpayer money, it spanned 13 acres, offered 1.4 million square feet of retail space, and dominated the riverfront.

MT: It was the largest construction project in Providence’s history. This is this one building and we sort of stood in awe watching it get built.

VL: Michael Townsend is an artist who lived nearby when the mall was still under construction in the in the 1990s. His daily running route took him past the construction site, and Michael says that as he watched it go up, he had an open mind about the project. He was cautiously optimistic that it would be a welcome addition to the neighborhood.

RM: But yeah, that didn’t last long.

MT: Yeah, it’s funny the revulsion to a building like that doesn’t really kick in until the skin gets put on. When it’s in its Erector Set mode where you just see the skeleton, you’re like, “That’s a pretty cool skeleton!” but as soon as the flesh is there, you’re like, “Ooh! not pretty!”

VL: Providence Place was going to be a big boxy stack of shops, without much in the way of architectural niceties, and on his runs, Michael watched as that big box was slowly filled with the things that make a mall a mall.

MT: As it’s being built, I started to sort of do mental maps of spaces you know, “That’s gonna be a store, that’s going to be a storage space, that’s going to be parking.”

RM: But, amidst all the construction there was one part of the building that kept catching Michael’s eye. A weird space in the guts of the architecture that didn’t make sense.

MT: And I thought that was really odd. It didn’t seem to meet the profile of either a storage space or a parking space or a store space.

VL: Michael wasn’t sure what the space was for. It seemed to exist only by virtue of the walls intended for the more legitimate spaces around it, but the result was this room.

RM: It was an accidental room. A remainder left over by the long division of the mall’s architecture.

MT: I had never seen anything like it, and every time I ran by it, it was something I would, I would think about.

VL: Michael eventually put the strange room out of his mind. He probably would have forgotten about it entirely except that four years later, a second group of developers, encouraged by the success of Providence Place, set their sights even closer to Michael. This time they wanted to build right on top of the historic mill district where Michael and a dozen or so other artists lived and worked in an old industrial building they called Fort Thunder.

RM: The developers had used a computer algorithm to figure out where to place a new supermarket, so that it wouldn’t compete with other supermarkets in the area.

MT: And I got to see this computer print out, and it is sort of like a like a nuclear explosion map. You can sort of see the radius from each supermarket and their theoretical reach, and in the blank spot that was our neighborhood, they put an X directly on the building we were living.

VL: And that was just the start. The developers wanted to tear down all of the old mill buildings, and replace them with yet more retail, with little to no pedestrian access.

MT: And it appears that they only mantra the developers have is, “If you see a space that’s underdeveloped, you have a God-given responsibility to develop it.” It’s like having a complete stranger say, “We’ve been thinking about it, and we think we’d like to knock your house down and make it a parking lot if that’s cool with you.”

RM: Now, normally, this would be the part of the story where we tell you all about how Michael and the other residents of Fort Thunder banded together to save their home in the face of the relentless march of capital. But no, it’s not that kind of story. Granted, they did save some buildings, but as for Fort Thunder…

MT: Oh, our actual home? Oh yeah, they fucking leveled that! They came in with bulldozers and cranes and knocked that sucker flat!

RM: Fort Thunder was gone. The reason we’re telling you this story is because of what happened next.

MT: Because when I see something like that, I’m like, “Ho ho ho. Really! game on.”

VL: Michael’s and his friends had lost their home, and in their mind, it had all started with that first mall. That was the original seed of development that had led to everything else. And so… talk began of a mall-related action. Call it art, call it a stunt, but a plan started to take shape.

RM: Michael and his friends decided they would find a way to live in the mall for seven days. Yes! Live in the mall. And they set a rule for themselves: they couldn’t leave.

MT: And without a second thought to how unfeasible that is, for our own well being, we really felt that we had to do it.

VL: And if this sounds like a lark, well yeah, it kinda was, but a secretly serious lark. The four friends, they would eventually number eight, wanted to assert that spaces like the mall could belong just as much to them as to the developers.

RM: To really do this right, they would need to find a space in the mall where they could hide themselves away, and Michael had the perfect place in mind. He began to search for that mysterious room that he had noticed when the mall was under construction all those years before. He remembered seeing that the room was connected to a kind of crevice, a narrow gap in the building’s structure, that eventually led out to an exterior wall. And so one night, Michael went to see if the entrance to the crevice had ever been sealed off.

VL: Amazingly, it hadn’t. It was small, and sort of hidden, but there was still a crack in the exterior of the mall. And so, he and his then-wife Adriana turned themselves sideways and slipped inside.

MT: And then once you’re in, at that point you are exploring a system of caverns. Long, weird, vertical caverns. And there are places where it just falls down into the lower levels of the mall. And you’ve got about a foot and a half of cliff, so you’re looking into a black abyss. And then this series of chambers, uh, ultimately give you access to this space.

RM: The room was tall and wide, filled with the byproducts of the mall’s construction from years before. Broken 2x4s and screws and plastic zip-ties that hadn’t even been worth removing. The space had literally been forgotten.

MT: And it was big! It was a big space that served no other purpose. It wasn’t a storefront, and it wasn’t a stairwell, it was just big! And it was a thrill to physically find it be like, “This is it. This is what I remember.”

VL: The room was in the guts of the building, the part that no one was ever supposed to use or even really see, but Michael and Adriana saw that it could still be accessed by multiple hidden entry-points, including from inside the shopping center itself. If you knew how to get there, you could walk there from the Macys. But as far as they could tell, they were the only people who knew this room existed.

RM: It was at that moment that the friend’s scheme started changing. The initial plan had been to spend a week at the mall, but the way they saw it, they were sitting on 750 square feet of under-utilized space. Then they asked themselves, what would a developer do? Because, after all ….

ECHOEY FLASHBACK – “If you see a space that’s underdeveloped, you have a God-given responsibility to develop it.”

MT: So we decided that perhaps the absolute best thing we could do is just build a condo. Like, that is, that is always the that’s always the answer. You’re not sure what to do with the space? Just make it a condo.

RM: The new plan was no longer to live in the mall for a week. It was now simply to live in the mall, for days at a time, using the room as an apartment. And while that may sound like a nightmare to everyone but a few weird artists from Providence, Michael and his friends got to work on this little project with the excitement of new homeowners.

VL: Step one, of course, was cleaning. They had to get rid of all that debris.

MT: It’s sort of like in a prison break movie. We were literally filling up our backpacks with just dirt and grime and then and then carrying it out of the mall and getting rid of it.

RM: And for every backpack full of debris they took out, they’d bring a pack full of something in.

VL: Gallon jugs of water for drinking and cleaning. Clamp lights and extension cords for illumination which they plugged into the mall’s internal power system. Parts for an ad-hoc kitchen. They even built a cinderblock wall to hide the space from anyone else who might venture into the cavern complex from it’s various other entrances.

MT: We went and got a door that was an exact mirror of the door the doors they used in the mall. So if you were to find it unless you were looking really closely at first glance it just looks exactly like it had been built originally.

RM: Finally, it was time to decorate.

MT: Anything we could buy at the mall we would.

[so] a low table came in on top of that proudly perched was a television and our PlayStation

[but] If we couldn’t buy it at the mall we’d have to bring it into the mall and that’s for the large pieces like the sectional couch or the China Hutch.

Nobody looked twice that you brought this couch … through the mall?

How did you get that in there?

MT: In in broad daylight. We avoided the night. So whenever we did actions in the mall anything that involved cleaning or the buildout of the space, we always made sure that we did that in the open. And we worked with the ebb and flow of the mall. We were just part of the, you know, the living organism of its daily activities.

RM: It may seem risky trying to furnish a secret apartment with a nested coffee table, but to anyone watching, it was just a person walking through a mall with a nested coffee table, that they just bought at the mall. There simply is no such thing as a suspicious-looking consumer item in a building that is dedicated to consumerism.

VL: The friends would sometimes stay in the secret apartment for several weeks in a row, just … living. Watching television, making collages with shadow boxes they bought at Pottery Barn, even cooking in the ad-hoc kitchen. Michael remembers burning some waffles with a waffle iron and wondering if the smoke would give them away.

RM: And when the eight friends weren’t enjoying their secret apartment, they were enjoying the mall, not as shoppers, but as residents. Thanks to its late-night movie theater, the mall almost never closed, so sometimes they would just roam the building with no goal in mind, observing it’s many moods.

MT: There are times when that entire building probably had maybe 10 people in it. You know, like, in the middle of the night? There’d be security officers, cleaning staff, and it’s a really wonderful time because it’s like having a public park, four levels deep, all to yourself. And in those moments there is a sense of ownership, and I just felt really good.

VL: Weeks turned to months, and eventually years. Out of the emotional rubble of Fort Thunder, they’d finally found their refuge. And all thanks to mall’s developers, who had accidentally provided a sanctuary from the world they were busy developing.

RM: But, as the old saying goes, there comes a time in every man’s life when he must stop living in the mall.

MT: Unfortunately, the seed got planted that this whole thing was going to unravel. And that’s because we had a break in.

VL: One day, they came back to the apartment only to discover that someone had kicked open the door and stolen the Playstation, along with several other small items, including the art they had made and a photo album.

MT: But they left the silverware, they left the TV. We were like, “This is a very odd burglary.” Like, they didn’t take the things of value. They only took the things that were like, super personal.

VL: Michael and his friends were spooked. They had managed to hide the apartment for four years, but now someone knew about the room, someone who could come back any time, and who seemed to be interested in them. So they changed things up. They decided from now on, they’d only stay there at night when the chances of being caught were low, never during the day.

RM: And, crucially, they would double down on another rule they’d had almost since the very beginning.

MT: Don’t share it with anyone. Don’t physically bring anyone here who wasn’t involved in the making of it. So a lot of my very very good, and best friends never saw the space. Um, and I’m the one who took that rule and broke it.

VL: Michael was hosting a visiting artist from Hong Kong. Her name was Jaffa. He was driving her to the bus station on her way out of town.

MT: And we’re driving. Past the mall and I say to myself, “What can it hurt? How could this possibly backfire on me?” So I brought her into the space. Her mind was absolutely blown. You got to remember this is at the peak of it’s build out. …

VL: Michael showed Jaffa everything: the couch, the lights, the television. They were just days away from installing a water tank and a wood floor. In spite of the break-in, after four years of work, the apartment was on the verge of feeling like a real home.

MT: But when we’re leaving, I hear a walkie-talkie on the other side of the door, within two feet of us on the other side of the door. And when the door opens, it’s three dudes in ties and sports jackets; and I realize in that moment I internalize that it’s over.

RM: It turned out that the earlier break-in had been the work of two of the malls newest security guards. Instead of removing everything, they had taken the personal items in the hopes of figuring out who Michael and his friends. Now that Michael had been foolish enough to come back during the day, they had their man.

VL: General Growth Properties, the company that owned the mall, did not take kindly to the secret apartment in its walls.

RM: You don’t say?

VL: After being handed over to the police and interrogated, Jaffa was eventually let go, but Michael soon found himself standing in front of a judge in criminal court, charged with breaking and entering and felony trespass.

MT: By the time I get to court, the mall has hired a lawyer, and they launch into all these details about the illegal things that I have done and I keep my mouth shut. But after they’ve gone through this laundry list of illegal activities, they used the phrase “This gave Mr. Townsend access to an apartment that they had built over several years that had the following things in it.” And goes on to list in detail what the apartment looked like.

RM: Including the coffee table, the television, a copy of the game Grand Theft Auto, an eight-foot China Hutch, a four-piece sectional couch, silverware for eight with matching glassware, a six-foot potted plant, a love seat, a decorative throw….

MT: And the more details this lawyer gives, the more the lawyer or the judge looks around and he’s like, “What’s happening here?” and then the judge hustles advisors close to him and you can hear them whispering… Then he look up, looks me dead in the eyes, and he goes, “This is not a criminal act. We’re not we’re not sure exactly what it was, but this is not a crime.”

RM: Whether the judge was perceiving a deep legal truth at the heart of the case or Michael was just the beneficiary of an incredible amount of white privilege, Michael may never know.

VL: In the end, he was slapped with a misdemeanor for trespassing and released. He had lived on and off in the secret apartment for nearly four years, and it was going to cost him almost nothing. But that doesn’t mean he got away entirely scott-free.

RM: Just before Michael left the mall, the mall’s security team handed him a piece a paper, the same piece of paper they hand to brawlers, shoplifters or anyone else who has overstayed their welcome in this most private of public spaces.

MT: It’s a standardized Manila piece of paper which has a map of the mall, and it has this red line around the whole thing. You have to sign it and it says, “You can’t cross that red line.” So they make it clear you’re never coming back.

VL: Now over a decade later, Michael still lives right near the mall. But his days of running anywhere near its thirteen acres are over.

MT: And the biggest bummer for me is that if I want to go to downtown, the path that you bring your bike through, is through the center of the mall where it bridges over the river And now that I’m banned from the mall I have to bike around it. And I’ve biked around it for ten years.

VL: Are you serious?

MT: Dilligently! (Laughing) And I have never broken this rule.

VL: So you really can never go back.

MT: I can never go back.

Comments (11)

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  1. skjeflo

    One word about outdoor malls:

    Northgate, in the Seattle area.

    The first shopping mall, still operating.

  2. Logan

    I’m only halfway through this episode, but needed to jump online and read through as quickly as possible once I heard about the guys with sports jackets breaking in. PLEASE tell me Michael and friends got in touch with a lawyer. This is EXACTLY what adverse possession laws are for– these guys made a home where the developers had left rubble.

  3. Acacio

    I was a little surprised there was no mention of the Northgate Mall built in 1950 (used to be open air) or John Graham Jr. the architect that made it and numerous other malls throughout the US after its success. Northgate Mall is considered by many as one of the first malls in the world, and sometimes the absolute first, where the modern mall structure was established. It had hidden paths for employees and merchandise that connects the shops and separates them from the customers at the center. On top of that is was preparing for a world of automobiles with large parking lots next to the Mall.

  4. Donney Liu

    Is it possible to update your player (use another player that is playable in China), so Chinese fans can listen to your audios? You know, Youtube is banned in China. The only option for Chinese fans who want to access your audios is using a VPN. However, not many people have VPNs (cost much for individuals).

  5. Island guy

    A number of years ago (1960’s?) a student at the University of Michigan walled off a cul-de-sac in the depths of the University Library. He lived there for four years.

    In posh Nantucket, a carpenter built an underground home in the Town Forest, using materials from the fabulous town dump. He managed to live there for three years before being caught.

    I like stories like this: hiding in plain sight.

  6. Amy White

    Great story. I graduated from RISD in 1987, so before the redevelopment of Providence. Love your show

  7. Ross Olson

    What does it look like now? Have they re-boarded it up, or has it been converted to something useful?

  8. Michael

    I want to disagree with the characterization of the Providence Place Mall. Many of the “historic mills” are rundown old industrial buildings that have toxins and other dangerous materials left in them from their former lives as factories. The development of downtown Providence was a benefit to most people that live there not just wealthy people as is often the case with real estate projects. The mall brings in traffic from the surrounding areas and adds some vitality to the area.

  9. I love 99PI and Nocturne, but I think this is the fakest sounding story I’ve ever heard. Just a few points of concern: How did Micheal identify an unused room while the building was mid-construction? How could someone “get in by the Macey’s if they know where to look”? If it was really so hidden that means there wasn’t doors or hallways leading there, how did they get furniture in there from the mall? The fact that the narrative ends with “maybe I was just lucky but the judge let me off easy” makes this such a sketchy story. To think he would get that far without someone mentioning the concept of adverse possession to him as a defence is near impossible.

    Love your series thanks for all your hard work

  10. Sheket

    Many, many, many retail developments have unused accessible but not accessed very large spaces. Some of these spaces are only accessible from the inside of the store and others are accessible from the exterior. In general the rooms are locked off without anyone accessing them, employees, landlords, etc. They can range in size from a hundred to several thousand square feet.

    I often note that the spaces are larger than the home I live in and wonder if anyone would/could/does live in these empty unused areas – now I know the answer!!

    Thanks for the story

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