Like all great landmarks of the underground scene, the skateboard bowl at Fallen Warehouse was spectacular, haphazard and not particularly legal. Culled from the remains of "Bruce's ramp" after uptight Boulder residents persuaded town administrators to force the deconstruction of that unofficial backyard facility in the summer of 2005, the aptly named Death Bowl was a huge plywood amalgamation of hips, spines and curves that soon gained a reputation for crumpling the collarbones of skaters unprepared for its vertical treachery. By the time snow hit late last year, the warehouse space -- which had served as an underground club for nearly a decade and boasted a smaller ramp and other obstacles since 2003 -- had emerged as a hidden home base for the skateboard community, hosting contests along with punk and hardcore shows.
In many ways, the industrial space at 2250 Lawrence Street -- next door to the Denver Rescue Mission, just east of the Ballpark neighborhood -- was an ideal spot for such an undertaking. The commotion caused by Fallen's late-night festivities blended in with the general bustle of hundreds of homeless people populating the surrounding area at any given time. Even so, the Denver Police Department started keeping a close eye on the warehouse, and after breaking up several shows there in February, shut the place down altogether with a March 3 cease-and-desist order.
"Probably why it's a lot of fun for them to hang out is that there are absolutely no regulations," says District 6 commander Deborah Dilley. "That creates a dangerous situation for them, for the public, for firefighters."
The cops threatened to charge the proprietor, 31-year-old Joe Hendricks, with numerous violations, including providing alcohol to underage drinkers, unless he discontinued all events and spent hundreds of dollars bringing the place up to fire code. Then the building inspector arrived and told Hendricks and his five roommates that they could no longer live in the building, since it was not zoned for residential use.
"And if we can't live here, we can't keep the space, because we can't afford to pay for a house and a space," says Hendricks. Still, over the next two months they toyed with the idea of going legit, which would require securing an official business license and putting in real fire-exit doors. But ultimately pouring so much money into that particular spot just didn't add up, and they disassembled the ramp. "It's kind of time to wash my hands of it," he concludes.
It's a story that's been played out numerous times in Denver's warehouse districts, where huge dilapidated buildings, cheap rents, inattentive landlords and isolated locales create ideal conditions for the underground haunts that exist on the fringes of every city's cultural scene. These spaces are populated by artists, students, musicians, anarchists, writers, activists or characters who only feel at home when securely outside the mainstream, and the life span of such a spot is usually limited to no more than a few years, as violations rack up until the police close it down, a spat arises with the landlord, the area gets gentrified out of price range or the main anchors of the group move on to new ventures. Or all four.
In the mid-'90s, the Beat Crib was a Five Points hangout; when it closed in 1997, it spawned Revoluciones, which took over a condemned warehouse at 719 West Eighth Avenue, just off the now-packed Santa Fe Arts District. Terry Beck, who lived there with up to twelve other people at times, remembers enjoying a don't-ask-don't tell relationship with the landlord. "We had free range to do what we wanted," he says. "But if something broke, we fixed it." So while the rent was cheap, they had to install their own hot-water heater and shower.
Fashioning itself as an arts collective, Revoluciones held regular showings for alternative concepts that otherwise wouldn't find a venue, including graffiti, fetish shows, hip-hop parties, local film screenings and other experimental exhibits. Its efforts were soon echoed by Soulciety Collective Art Space, at 3520 Brighton Boulevard, a kind of art-freak troop of painters, sculptures, graphic designers and all-of-the-above creative types, which started up in 1999 and stayed open until police helicopters and vice cops broke up one of Soulciety's infamous art-party events in 2001. Garageland and the Hipster Youth Halfway House, which provided stages for avant-garde bands that attracted small but loyal followings, sprang up in the 2700 block of Walnut Street in 2002, but within two years, both warehouses had been shut down by the city. In 2004, Revoluciones made the move to Construct, at 3519 Brighton Boulevard, which functioned as a multi-use underground performance and gallery complex until its demise last year. But the slack was immediately taken up by its next-door neighbor, Rhinoceropolis, formerly known as Wheelbarrow. And the warehouse on West Eighth is now home to Clandestinos, an activist-bike-gang cooperative.
There's little documentation on now-closed spaces -- beyond the tattered fliers still tacked to poles and bulletin boards around town -- but their names linger: Linoleum, Pine Box Construction Company, Wonderground, the Fumes/Chrome Warehouse, Hog Butler Warehouse. And some warehouse projects grow up to become legit: The Other Side Arts Collective, for example, has long offered art studios, classes and events at 1644 Platte Street (where the Denver Zine Library is housed), and last year it opened a second location in Aurora.
Since underground warehouse spaces rarely have the right zoning or permits to host big events, the people running the unofficial venues generally skirt the legal line by not charging a set admission and instead requesting a "donation" at the door. If alcohol is served, the people acting as bartenders simply ask for a few bucks in reimbursement; otherwise, it's BYOB. There are other unwritten rules, as well: Never put a cover charge on a flier, lest the city use it as evidence that a space is charging admission and thus holding a public event without a permit. It's also bad form to allow large groups to congregate outside of the warehouse in a way that will draw undue attention from police, neighbors or the city zoning department.
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"When you start dealing with a building space that was designed for one purpose, like warehousing, and you start using it for another purpose, like housing or a rave party, it can cause a lot of issues," says Denver zoning administrator Kent Strapko. "But they're only reported if they create some kind of disturbance."
Though the DPD says it will shut down any space that is operating illegally, a couple of the longest-running underground warehouses, such as Monkey Mania, are known to officers but manage to stay off the shitlist because they don't cause many problems. Monkey Mania first emerged in 1998 on Lipan Street in the Baker neighborhood, where it offered a regular lineup of art-punk and noise bands. Two years later it moved to 21st and Arapahoe streets, into a space that had already gained a following as the Arapahoe Warehouse. Monkey Mania was operated by Josh Taylor of Friends Forever and Amy Fantastic from Rainbow Sugar until they decided to move to Los Angeles in December and leave the spot to Jay Beckey, an enthusiastic eighteen-year-old drummer, who convinced four friends to carry the torch with him.
"To me, my favorite place in Denver to see shows, let alone play shows, was Monkey Mania," Beckey says. "If it didn't exist anymore, I would be heartbroken. I kind of felt obligated to keep it going if no one else was going to do it." Before Taylor left, he instructed Beckey on the rules of running a successful underground venue. First and foremost, keep it DIY. "Don't make it into a place where if you don't pay admission you're not coming in," Beckey says Taylor told him. "If someone only has three dollars in their hand for three people because they spent fifty bucks to drive down here from Wyoming, let them in anyway."
And the crowds keep coming -- even though where they go keeps changing as warehouses get shut down, then open up again. Including Fallen, Hendricks promises, because come winter, the Death Bowl will be rebuilt at a more low-key location, breaking clavicles all over again.