The Rhode Island couple awoke one morning in 1998 to find the name of their street changed: Kinsley Avenue was now Providence Place, which happened to be the name of the 1.3 million-square-foot mall rising on 13 prime downtown acres. Townsend and Yoto were among the Providence residents objecting to the mall -- the cost to taxpayers, the colonizing presence of the structure that dominated the skyline from the highway. But Yoto, a scholar, and Townsend, a public artist, expressed their outrage in an unusual way: They decided to live with the mall. Literally.
In 2003, inside a 750-foot storage space, abandoned since construction days, they crafted a secret apartment within the mall from which they could study its allure. Why do so many of us flock to the mall's sanitized hallways? Why do we love the sameness of mall life, identical shops and structures across the country? Why is the mall the site of our grievances, the place where gunmen go to inflict maximum pain? Earlier this year, a man set off an explosion in a mall in Exeter, England. The week before, a woman was shot in one.
Clearly, we have complicated emotional relationships to malls, and Townsend and Yoto figured one way to comprehend all that they critiqued was to embrace it, to live it so they might understand it. The mall adventure was to last a week; it went on for four years. If Townsend hadn't been nabbed by security and charged with criminal trespassing last October, they'd still be camping out there today.