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A Group of Artists Built an Apartment Inside a Mall, and No One Noticed

SXSW
SXSW

Ask three different people what they think gentrification is, and you might get three different answers in return. The term, which refers to the economic development of a low-income area that ultimately displaces the neighborhood’s current residents, is culturally ubiquitous but rarely understood. Because of its prevalence, the more broad definition of gentrification has been reduced in people’s minds to “the emergence of new coffee shops,” or “white people moving in with their dogs.” While those aren’t exactly untrue results of this phenomenon, gentrification typically begins higher up, when urban planners, city officials, and bigwig developers with their fat pockets lined with shiny gold doubloons get together to revamp local infrastructure. They are the ones whose residential buildings and businesses drive the cost of living up, and force residents out of homes they’ve lived in for decades.

It was this type of insidious, dictionary-definition gentrification that led eight artists in Providence, Rhode Island, to fight back. Just before the turn of the century in August 1999, construction was completed on the massive Providence Place Mall, which developers hoped would boost the city’s economy and revitalize its downtown area. The shopping center was not just an eyesore in the middle of the city; it was also a central attraction that pushed the value of the surrounding land sky-high. Cut to local artist Michael Townsend and his friends being kicked out of their home nearby so it could be torn down and turned into a grocery store. While trying to find a new place to stay, they hatched a plan: Take an empty, forgotten space inside of the gigantic mall, and turn it into an apartment as a middle finger to the man.

Except this wasn’t just some punks playing a prank. The apartment turned into a home, one that housed a group of working artists on and off for four whole years before it was discovered.

Townsend and his cohorts are the subjects of Secret Mall Apartment, a fantastic new documentary premiering at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival. Even though their hidden home made national news when it was discovered by mall security in 2007, no other accomplices came forward. The documentary introduces the world to Townsend’s friends and partners in this project for the first time, telling their story through priceless archival footage from a dingy digital camera used to document the whole multi-year process. The result is an odd and outrageous doc that captures a low-tech blip in time, and affirms the power and necessity of art and those who create it.

When Providence Place opened a few months before the new millennium, a shopping mall as a revitalization tool seemed like a sure bet. No one could have predicted how online shopping would shake the industry, especially considering the impending Y2K incident had people legitimately convinced that all computer systems would fail and the country would be plunged into darkness. Why not throw $500 million at a super-mall? Surely that concept would not be verging on extinction two decades later.

That lack of forethought impacted Townsend, his friends, and the thousands of others who were eventually displaced from their homes after the mall was built. Townsend was part of an artists’ enclave in an old mill building on the “poorer” side of town, not far from the mall, which now physically divided Providence’s income brackets. Hidden camera footage of a developer who bought their building telling them, “When I come back, you better be out—I’m not fucking around,” is downright chilling. Is it so shocking that a group of ultra-creative people would turn their rage from being kicked out of their home into an ambitious, slightly dangerous real-life art project inside the very structure that displaced them?

In 2003, Townsend, along with his then-wife Adriana and friends Andrew and Jay—as well as an eventual rotating group of eight total artist colleagues—scouted the corridors of Providence Place and found a room hidden in the bowels of its design. The decently sized cement surface sat atop a large set of steep metal stairs, which were only accessible through tight passageways or security doors that set off a loud alarm. But once Townsend and his team discovered that the two-minute alarm was more of a deterrent than an actual alert, their plan was hatched.

The footage captured during this time is remarkable. Though Townsend’s little digital camera—which fit inside of an Altoids can and could remain discreet as they surveilled and mapped the mall—is low-res, the extent of what has survived and made it into the finished film is incredible. Secret Mall Apartment is a time capsule of early-2000s iconography, with loose-cut, dirt-washed jeans and War of the Worlds novelty popcorn bags (purchased from inside the mall’s movie theater and brought back to the apartment) catapulting us back to a bygone era. Watching the team trick and evade the mall’s security and staff and slowly build out their fantasy apartment piece by piece is completely thrilling.

This was not a simple project by any means. The goal was to turn the secret apartment into a real, livable home, and the videos of the group at thrift stores picking out couches and wooden hutches to haul through the mall and finagle up those steep stairs undetected are hysterical. Half the fun of Secret Mall Apartment comes from watching the project ramp up from a wacky idea into its unbelievable execution. And it helps that Townsend and his friends are such compelling, confident documentary talking heads. It’s so vividly clear that this secret apartment was not merely a stunt; it deeply meant something to them.

The film dextrously expands past all of its initial excitement when it illustrates precisely why this group of creative minds held such affection for their clandestine condo. Director Jeremy Workman sews together a larger narrative that, at times, becomes unexpectedly moving. Yes, the secret apartment was a living, changing project. But it was also a place for people to come together and to plan more involved, important work together.

The film finds its strongest emotional footing when it explores the art that Townsend and his crew made during the years that the mall apartment was functioning. His beautiful tape art projects, which Townsend brought to children’s hospitals and used to memorialize the victims of 9/11 in the years immediately following the attacks, will not so much tug at your heartstrings as yank them. Meanwhile, the footage of a late-’90s sculpture piece that Townsend hid underneath a Providence train track for the public to find is a stirring reminder that art doesn’t need clear political intention attached to be poignant and significant.

The movie isn’t always as graceful as these moments. At one point, in their present-day talking head interviews, Townsend and his friends recall their white privilege after they weren’t arrested or violently harmed by police while being questioned about why they were hauling cinder blocks through an armed entrance in the mall. (This was, naturally, to build an entire cement wall, with a door in the middle, to throw any prying eyes off their trail.) These observations are frustratingly surface-level, short, and shoehorned in, as if to remind us that these artists are globally aware of their privilege. That’s a necessary talking point in this story, but the film doesn’t explore it past a few quick soundbites before moving back to the fun. The result is tonally jarring, and feels perfunctory and obvious when compared with how excellently the film studies other subjects.

But Secret Mall Apartment is also careful to avoid suggesting that gentrification is bad specifically because it displaced these brilliant artists. Rather, the film asks its audience to consider the people whose whole lives are in one place, and who have them tossed aside by forces outside of their control so a strip mall can be built. Townsend and the rest of the people who frequented the secret apartment know well that their experience with gentrification was relatively trivial compared to others. But it’s because they were affected at all that their four-year project and this documentary exist.

Often, art reveals an even greater importance over time. By examining the effects of gentrification on a small scale, and the need for artistic outlets in the face of strife, the secret mall apartment inside Providence Place finds a new significance 20 years after it was created. The documentary depicts the reptilian idea of “progress” eating its tail, and in its final kicker, Secret Mall Apartment delivers one hilarious, nauseating gut punch that reaffirms its brilliance.

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