The Home Team
Peter Miles Regenold Bergman calls it a drive-by art show. Jim "Handsome" Hanson thinks of it more as vigilante code enforcement. The three kids riding their bikes down the alley have no idea what to think of Bergman's experiment.
They skid to a stop in the gravel and look up at the two parking-lot attendants in fluorescent orange vests hopping from foot to foot. "What's this?" one kid asks.
"No parking," Hanson answers, as he and Bergman wave their official fluorescent-orange flags at the kids as if they were an Excursion, an Accord and an Outback waiting to pull in. "This isn't a place to park."
The kids stare at the yellow parking strips taped into three regulation-sized spaces in the oil-stained back lot three blocks west of Invesco Field at Mile High. The orange cones, the flexible plastic posts, the wooden sign inscribed with the word "NO" in two-foot-tall red letters. Then they look at each other, shrug and ride off.
The Broncos-Dolphins game starts in an hour, and the Cheltenham Heights neighborhood is packed with fans looking to circumvent the gouge-fest on Federal Boulevard, where spaces in privately owned lots go for $35 a pop. Legions of jersey-clad football lovers march merrily toward the stadium, thinking they've avoided the steep fee by parking in the residential areas neighboring Invesco Field. They're oblivious to the army of tow trucks and parking-enforcement vehicles lying in wait, ready to haul off any car not displaying the proper residential-parking permit.
The enforcers are so ruthlessly efficient that many of the cars they'll tow actually belong to residents of this largely Spanish-speaking area, residents who don't know how to procure a permit or can't afford the $30-a-year tag, Bergman says. The parking police only come to this neighborhood on game days, according to Bergman's neighbor, Jesus Gonzales; the rest of the year, they won't respond if you call them. "It used to be only a $15 fine," he says of the numerous game-day tickets he's received over the years. "Now it's $60. Sixty dollars! They're robbing the neighborhood."
Gonzales understands the city's motives: money. But he and his neighbors don't have a clue why Bergman and Hanson, the men known simply as "gringos locos," are turning the rear of Bergman's home at 1576 Hooker Street into a faux parking lot -- and then turning away prospective customers and their money.
Welcome to the Fantasy Football Parking Lot.
As founder of the dispersed art-prank society known as the Institute of Sociometry, Bergman is fascinated by how individuals react to subtle and often bizarre disruptions to the routines of daily life. In the little packet of Institute paraphernalia displayed in Bronco colors on a podium next to the parking cones, he defines Sociometry as "the quantitative analysis of individuals and their relationships to groups." The Institute's agents subscribe to "guerilla Sociometry," he says, which has no allegiance to "the rigors of mathematics or even science!" Or even reason. Bergman's stunts are subtle to a fault. There's no method to his madness -- just method.
The formula behind this performance piece began last year, when Bergman got a parking ticket in front of his house during a pre-season Broncos game. Because parking was at such a high premium -- and because he was unemployed at the time -- he decided to sell spots in the back yard for $10 to $15 one game day. Many drivers were suspicious: "Is it okay to park here? Am I going to get towed?" they asked. Their fears were easily overcome by the hefty savings, though, and in less than an hour, Bergman had made a cool seventy bucks. It wasn't long before his neighbors caught on and began directing cars to their lots as well.
Then, in September 2003, Denver's Neighborhood Inspection Services issued an alert, warning game-goers that the area is not zoned for commercial use and that it is illegal for homeowners to sell parking on their property. "If someone flags you over and offers a parking space at a location without a special-event parking sign, it is very likely a scam," explained Inspection Service Manager Tom Kennedy in a notice to fans. For the rest of the season, inspectors in city trucks patrolled the neighborhood heavily, on the lookout for illegal parking activity. Bike cops would dart into alleyways blaring warnings over their megaphones, sending tailgating Broncos fans and residents alike scattering for cover.
"Were you selling parking?" an officer asked Bergman before a chilly Monday-night game.
"Well, I was," he answered, "but an officer already told me it was illegal."
"That's right, a $1,000 fine."
"Is there a permit I can obtain to sell spaces?"
"No. This is zoned residential. If you're selling spaces, that constitutes a business," the officer told him.
Rather than let The Man have the last word, Bergman decided he would simply give the spaces away. He got his then-neighbor Hanson, an official Institute agent and longtime buddy from their days back in Laramie, to buy in on the concept. Initially, they stood at the mouth of the alley leading to the lot with a sign reading "Free Parking," but they soon discovered that free was not a good selling point. "When we were selling it, parking people here was easy," says Hanson, who now lives in Fort Collins. "It was really hard to give away free parking."
Potential patrons were suspicious. Why would someone give away free parking? To rob their cars? When a white Chevy Tahoe finally took Bergman up on the offer, its driver insisted on making a transaction anyway, handing over four Warsteiner Imported Lagers and half a gram of homegrown. But the zoning-enforcement cops were eyeballing the deal, and the next week, as Bergman stood on the sidewalk with his little sign, a bike cop hopped the curb toward him.
"What are you selling, buddy?" he asked.
"Nothing," Bergman said, holding up the "Free Parking" sign.
"No," the cop said. "No, you can't. Not even for free. It's a special-event parking violation. You have to have a permit."
"Actually, it's a zoning violation to sell parking, because it constitutes the operation of a small business unpermitted in an R-3-zoned neighborhood." Bergman replied, smug in his correctness.
"No! Uh-uh," the officer responded, then asked Bergman where he lived.
"Up there, where I'm going to park people."
"Go home. Go back to your apartment and watch the game on TV, or I'll write you a citation for trespassing."
"For standing on the sidewalk!?"
"Yes. If I let you stand out here, you'll be flashing your sign as soon as I leave."
"Go back to your apartment and watch the game on TV!"
Bergman finally acquiesced. But he didn't watch the game on TV. Instead, he decided to take his concept to the next level. And what's the logical step up from free? Pure prank.
So on the Sunday of the Broncos-Dolphins game, as the tow trucks rumble past in succession and the roar of the crowd begins to fill the sky, Bergman, surrounded by $267 worth of catalog-ordered vests, stripes and flags, waves his "NO" flag. Two women in a black Jeep Cherokee with silver rims roll up. Bergman and Hanson are waiting.
"Where's your lot?" one of the women asks.
"There's no parking," Bergman says, approaching the vehicle with a friendly smile.
"Is it fifteen dollars?" she asks.
"No, you can't park here," he says, handing them an Institute packet.
"Well, why are you waving the flags around and stuff?"
"Oh, well, to let people know they can't park here."
The driver's forehead crumples in confusion for a moment before her passenger begins to laugh at the absurdity of it. "Okay. No parking! Whoo!" The women speed away, cackling, and the no-parking attendants stand at the end of their dirty alleyway and wave their flags triumphantly.
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