Discover more from CAFÉ ANNE
A Secret Apartment in the Mall
Plus: Pigeon of the Month! Rubber Plant Update!
Welcome to Issue #27 of CAFÉ ANNE!
I am very pleased to announce the return of “Pigeon of the Month,” thanks to a request from reader Paul F. in London. Paul, I’m sorry it took so long. It’s hard to find a profile-worthy pigeon, even in NYC.
Also in this issue, a Q&A with Adriana Young, a Bronx design consultant who maintained a secret apartment inside a Rhode Island mall for four years.
Finally, stay tuned for next week, in which, at the suggestion of reader Will T. in Bed-Stuy, I will investigate the story behind “Sherita,” the mysterious, pink Dr. Seussian lady depicted on the strange heating oil billboard at the corner of Classon and Atlantic Ave. in Brooklyn.
Got any leads? Please email me: firstname.lastname@example.org
Pigeon of the Month
Name: Heather Constable
Neighborhood: Brooklyn Heights
Occupation: Actress, writer, photographer
In her forthcoming book, Ms. Constable shares some of the many images she’s collected over the years—there’s a section on horror movies, another on dogs, as well as one composed entirely of images from the book Clinical Diagnosis of Diseases of the Mouth, which she bought at the Rose Bowl Flea Market. The book also includes her own photography and touching essays about her family. Here, she discusses her daily routine.
What time do you get up on Mondays, and what’s the first thing you do after waking up?
I get up early, around 6 a.m. And then in the remarkable, wonderful mess of life, I go and get coffee. Plain old black coffee. I’m not into the idea of a piece of toast. It doesn’t interest me.
What’s your secret to putting together a great outfit in the morning?
I have a closet and I have things in there. And I’ll just throw it on and who cares? It’s so early in the morning. Not much to say about that. Nothing great.
Do you take any vitamins?
Oh God, let’s just call it mountains. Every morning, there’s a plastic thing and there’s pills. It’s supposed to make me healthy. So I’m just going along with it, OK? There’s nothing exciting. That’s it, it’s so boring, there’s nothing interesting about what I’m doing.
Do you set aside a specific time to brainstorm or reflect or meditate or journal?
I do not meditate but I like to get on the treadmill. I’ll walk fast and then maybe I’ll run a bit. I give myself about half an hour on it, otherwise I’d go crazy. Because it’s not exactly my idea of a good time.
What are you reading and watching?
Watching depends. Like I enjoyed watching the Academy Awards, all right? That was out there, that was whoa. I turn on the news, CNN. I scatter around; it’s not like I’m dedicated to anything. So let’s just give it to CNN.
What’s one piece of advice you’ve gotten that’s guided you?
I don’t think people come up to me and give me advice, or if they have, I’ve completely forgotten it or pushed it aside.
Thank you for your time, and congratulations on the book.
Oh, shut up! Shut up. You’re a doll. Buh-bye.
MY WILD BROOKLYN LIFE
Rubber Plant Update #2
Regular readers who print out this newsletter, memorize it, and eat it will recall that in Issue #21, I gave an account of how I put my rubber tree plant up for adoption through NextDoor, the neighborhood-based social media app. The plant was dying under my care, and I was hoping a nice Brooklyn Heights neighbor might come to the rescue.
I got lucky when a grandmotherly type named Ann, who lives around the corner, agreed to take it off my hands.
Ann promised to keep the plant in her bedroom, where it would get lots of light, and send me monthly updates.
She kept her word! Last Tuesday, she texted me out of the blue.
“Bad News,” she wrote. “All the leaves dried & fell off. It wasn’t for want of care or attention.”
She sent a photo:
“Pruned according to Google Expert Gardener,” she wrote.
But she’s not giving up…there is one new leaf!
“Did not touch the one that’s promising,” she wrote. “I was away for 10 days. (My sister Valerie in Cincinnati had knee surgery.) It was just thin & pointed when I left. On my return it had unfurled. 1 1/2” broad, 2” long. There’s hope. After all it’s Spring.”
I asked how he was doing overall.
“It’s a she!” Ann replied. “Leaves are glossy, stem is dainty, hence the assumption.”
I asked if she’d named the plant. “Since I am Anne, and you are Ann, I think she should have a similar name,” I wrote.
That’s when Ann got all boss-grandmother on me and suggested I stop the texting nonsense and get back to work. “I’m retired & old. You on the other hand are young & employed & working from home,” she wrote. “We shall wait for the weekend to be silly.”
I’ll let you know when I get another update from Ann!
A Secret Apartment in the Mall
My favorite fun fact about my friend Adriana Young is not that she once inhabited a secret apartment inside a mall, but that she never let this information drop until I had known her for several years. And when she did, she mentioned it in the sort of off-hand manner another person might use to relate what they ate for breakfast.
“You WHAT?” I remember saying. “TELL ME EVERYTHING.”
So she told me the whole story. And it’s such a good story, I asked her to retell it for CAFÉ ANNE.
Adriana is a busy lady these days—she lives in the Riverdale section of the Bronx where she homeschools her 8-year-old son Rui, looks after her dad, teaches at the School of Visual Arts and does all kinds of fancy design consulting and research work that I don’t understand. But she took time last week for a Q&A, which I found delightful. Please enjoy!
Remind me how this got started….
This was more than 15 years ago. I lived in Providence, Rhode Island where I ran a school for undocumented immigrant families. And I was really close with a group of artists from RISD [Rhode Island School of Design]. We worked together on a lot of different projects, and it was kind of a way for me to have fun. I was in this very serious role, and 23 years old, and I had a lot of responsibility. I was dealing with a lot of heavy issues. But I was also a young person. I wanted to have fun and do goofy things and explore the city.
With my art friends, we were just very interested in the city and things that were going on and just being part of this kind of, like, critical thinking crew of people.
The CTC! I had volunteered to work at a museum doing an installation. And we were just chatting and hanging out and working all day, listening to the radio, and there was an ad for the Providence Place shopping mall.
This big mall had just opened up in the center of our city. It had been a little contentious because it was 1.3 million square feet—out of scale. It represented more than the combined total square footage of all the other retail downtown.
I had already been kind of critical with my friends of this mall. We thought it was so ugly and bad and wrong. And then this ad featured a woman who was a mom. The mom said, “Oh, I love Providence Place mall. So convenient! I can do all my shopping! And then I can also get a manicure and go to the movies, I can live my best life. I love this mall so much. I wish I could live there!”
So 23-year-old me thought, “Hahaha, what if we actually did live there? Great idea, advertisement! I'm going to live out your fantasy. And I'm going to show you that it's really a nightmare.”
The people in my critical thinking crew loved the idea, they thought it was so funny. I remember one of my friends, Mike, thought it was such a great idea that he had to go to the bathroom. Like he just couldn't control himself. He thought it was so crazy.
So we planned this for Columbus Day weekend. We decided we would live in the mall for four days. Actually, I think maybe seven days, I can't remember exactly. We ended up staying for three nights. We left on the fourth day. Because it was so boring.
We thought it was going to be this big cat-and-mouse game between security and us. Security did not care at all. We did a really good job of just blending in and hanging out and being like shoppers.
We set rules. We could only have $20 for the weekend. It was before smartphones. We did have a one camera digital camera that we shared. And we each had a notebook and one of those metal blankets people use for the marathon. So we slept with those.
It had the same feeling as when you camp. You're a little grimy. And you can't take a shower. It’s the same, but in a mall. So it's like urban camping.
Where did you sleep?
Having seen the mall being built, we knew that there were these pockets of unused space in between the parking lot and different big box stores. The way the mall had been constructed, it had to fit into this kind of irregular parcel. There’s this big curve in the back, and there's no curved stores, right? So there's a bunch of like, triangle spaces in there. We slept in between these I-beams, and we had bought some sheets from Filene’s Basement, and we made hammocks.
Then we found this other space which became the space that we eventually developed into an apartment that was about 700 square feet and was lofted. You could get there from the parking lot or the movie theater. And you had to kind of crawl in along one of these I-beams.
How many people were there those first four days?
Jay, Andrew, Mike, and me. Four people. But it wasn't fun. For the most part. No, it was pretty miserable. It’s one of those things where you dare yourself to do something and then you just commit to it because of the principle of it, right?
But I laughed a lot. Things are really funny in a mall, if you hang out long enough and observe things.
I decided I was going to go try to look at every single object in Pottery Barn. Because that had been a real fantasy for me, of having this perfect life, you know? And so, it was like, I'm gonna look at every object. What is it that I'm desiring? Okay, it's a set of knives. What is in the set of knives? There's this one big knife. There's this one wavy knife. There's this one little tiny knife. What is it? What are all these things that we're going bonkers for all the time? If you actually look at it, it's just like, really weird nonsense.
I also tried to try on every outfit in this store called Bebe. Do you know the store?
Oh, yeah. Yeah, it was like, super sexy, right?
Super sexy! So it's like the opposite of the persona of me. And it's just so uncomfortable and strange. I remember trying on this skirt that was all sequins. It's not even really clothes. Like, you can't actually function in this clothing. You know? It's very bizarre. If you really take time to think about it, it's very strange.
What did you eat?
I ate samples from the food court. I ate leftovers. How many people actually finish their fries? So I finished your fries. I finished your pizza bites and your fries, and I used my $20 to buy tea. I had tea every morning at Barnes & Noble.
How did the apartment come to be?
I remember thinking, “This is really boring. It's not going anywhere. We've learned everything that we need to learn. But you know what would be really funny is if we developed this space into an apartment!”
There was a lot of political stuff at the time going down in the west and south sections of Providence where there were developers coming in and realizing, “Wait a minute, all this historic landmark mill property—this is actually really valuable. And if we fix it, we can transform this neighborhood into something that people will pay money for.”
There is some kind of like, moral obligation of the developer, when there's something underutilized. It’s a little bit like, manifest destiny for some of them, relating to the original American identity and sentiment of, “We have this obligation to develop.”
So we were saying “Hey, there is this underutilized space at the mall, just like the property in our city!”
We had the apartment, I think, for four years. We always kept it a secret, but more of our friends started to work on the project, and they really liked it. We put a lot of furniture in there. And we built our own cinderblock wall with its own door that had its own lock.
So it was an open space, and you had to build a wall?
To finish it off. There were three walls, but then we built the fourth wall.
How did you build a wall in the mall without security noticing?
Well the location is pretty convenient. It’s off the parking lot. And then there's this stairwell that's mostly an emergency stairwell. So people don't use it very often. So we carried in, like, brick-by-brick, the cinder blocks, and then just mixed the cement…
It's like the opposite of a prison break!
Exactly. It was very bizarre.
Did you actually give up your own apartment and move in?
No, it was like a second home. Or more like a clubhouse. Really, it was a clubhouse for grownups. But we were not really fully grown-up.
Can you tell me what it looked like?
There was kind a day bed, and a glass dining room table. There was a mid-century modern hutch with silverware and a waffle maker. There was a couch and a coffee table. We had a TV and a PlayStation.
What did it feel like to hang out there?
It was cool. I mean, it was very dark, like hanging out in the basement. Kind of dank and dark. But it felt very safe, that was the thing.
It felt like we were we were kind of like outcasts or refugees from capitalism, living in the ruins of capitalism, and having to use whatever survival skills that we had somehow taught ourselves to make use of all the waste, like the discarded land, the discarded furniture. We definitely got stuff that people didn't want any more. Some things were from the Salvation Army. We did a workshop one time at Pottery Barn to make shadow boxes, and we used those to decorate our space.
How many people ultimately knew about it?
The original four people. And then Greta, James, and Colin. Seven people. And then Mike told an artist who was visiting from Hong Kong. That was a mistake.
There were some security guards that were just wandering around, some new security guards. I imagine them as young men, I don't actually know what they looked like and who they were. But I know that they were new to the mall, and they went exploring. And they found this door. They had a whole bunch of keys, but no keys to open this door. So they thought, “This is weird.” So they busted it down and they found this apartment.
Looking back, I'm so happy for them! That must have been like a dream, right? “Who lives here? What is this place?” I've never thought about that until now. But how wonderful that experience must have been for them. And they took our PlayStation!
So then they were on the lookout. They're like, “Somebody lives here and we're going to monitor it.” So Mike had gone back with this artist from Hong Kong, and the guards were waiting. And they arrested them for trespassing.
The artist from Hong Kong was let go because she explained that she was just visiting and her artists’ organization that sponsored her had a lawyer that called and said, “No she's not involved.” But Mike had to spend the night in jail.
The next day he was released by a judge saying, “This is nonsense. There’s no harmful intention—they just decorated this place.”
The mall was owned by a very large company. They owned more than 300 malls around the world. They wanted to sue us for all of the images, all the footage, like any pictures, photographs—they wanted to destroy them all. They said that they were very worried about copycat projects—that people would all of a sudden start making secret apartments in all their malls. And of course, nobody did that. Because it's so hard and inconvenient. You know what I mean? It's like, definitely not a viral idea at all.
They also said Mike was not allowed to go to the mall for a year.
What happened when you went public? I know there were some news stories about it.
At that time, I didn't really like public speaking. I was very self conscious and shy. And my partner Mike, who I was married to at the time, he is opposite. He loves talking and engaging with people. And he thought this was the best thing that ever happened. So we were on Good Morning America, I think, or the Today Show, I can't remember which TV show it was. We were in the National Enquirer too. And they built this story—oh, it’s this average American couple who loves the mall so much they lived there. It was funny.
I was kind of embarrassed about it for many years. But at the same time, it's really the only reason why I got a job at Parsons teaching [Manhattan’s Parsons School of Design], and I really needed a job. It was 2008, and the recession. And I had given a talk with Mike at Parsons, and people were very impressed. And then some professor invited me to teach and develop some classes in urban design theory. I ended up teaching at Parsons for 12 years. And I got some research grants to visit more malls and do some fun research in the Middle East. The architecture departments were really into it.
Why does this story fascinate people so much?
Maybe it’s the kind of thing that people have the idea to do, but they would never do it. I think we can live a big part of our life like that. We love those kinds of stories, because there's always something—it can be big or small—I've always wanted to do it, but I don't have the courage. Maybe that's it? I don't know.
Last question: what was your favorite store at the mall?
Barnes & Noble. You can sit there and hang out. You can look at magazines and there's something for everyone. You can have a hot beverage. And they're never going to kick you out.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“Yes I’m very stupid. Where’s the money?”
—Jesse “Kid” Cooper Levy, Ann Arbor, Michigan
CAFÉ ANNE is a free newsletter created by Brooklyn journalist Anne Kadet. Subscribe to get the latest issue every Monday!