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Building for the Future

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David is nineteen, a big, likable kid who shrugs a lot. He's not part of the hardcore street crowd, social workers say, but he knew the Silos.

There were a few ways to get inside, he says, drawing a diagram on a piece of notebook paper. The doors and windows were barricaded, but that made it like a game.

Some kids crawled through the small tunnel leading into the basement, but because of the stories, most took another route. David climbed up the rusty window grates.

It was gloomy inside, even in daylight, and littered with garbage. When he entered, David always made a lot of noise so the people hiding in the shadows could hear him coming. If he ran into someone he didn't know, he remembers, "you went one way and they went the other."

Most kids went with friends. Some carried weapons. David preferred a length of rebar with a concrete chunk on one end. "You had to watch what you were doing," he says, his large, pudgy hands fidgeting. "It was pretty far away from everything, so if you screamed for help, no one would hear you."

The floors were riddled with holes where the old mill pipes had been. Several were big enough to fall through; David could look down one and see all the way to the ground.

The concrete steps winding to the top floors were cracked and the handrails shaky. One wrong step could send you tumbling. And the elevator shaft was an open pit, a straight drop seven floors down.

"I never spent the night there," he says. "I was never that desperate. You only went there when you had to."

David went there ten times.
His last visit was Halloween night. He and several friends climbed onto the roof and drew a pentagram in the gravel.

At least two people have died in the Silos.
The first was 25-year-old Michael Donnelly, who fell down the elevator shaft on October 13, 1991. Donnelly had a job at a grocery store and wasn't homeless. But after drinking in a bar that night, he visited the Silos. Denver police detectives never determined why he went there or what happened, but they found no foul play. Donnelly's death was listed as accidental.

The second was a white man in his mid-twenties, who was found beaten and stabbed to death in the building in May 1995. Police and coroner's investigators spent at least a year circulating his picture, posting his description, trying to find out who he was.

They never did.

His street name is Casanova. He's twenty years old and says he's been on his own for about ten: "Bad family life. Abuse and stuff." For him, street life was a choice.

He and his friends visited the Silos to party, smash bottles against the wall, let loose. They'd yell, get high, play truth or dare, jump over the holes on the silo roof.

"It was basically like a big clubhouse," he says, rubbing a tattoo of his ex-fiancee's name, Leonda, on the fingers of his left hand. "We could tag. We could be destructive. We could be violent. We could go there and totally let go."

A few times in the late Eighties, winos tried to take over the Silos, but the teens fought back. Once, some kids ganged up on a bum and beat him to a bloody pulp.

"We left him there with his left arm broken," Casanova says. "We were angry. Angry at everyone."

Looking back, he says, it probably wasn't smart to get so wild. If you fell into one of those holes, you could break a leg or practically kill yourself. But that only happened once that he knows of, to a friend of his.

One night he and that friend dropped acid and climbed to the top floor to trip on the graffiti art that covered everything in the Silos. His friend somehow leaned too close to the edge of the abandoned elevator shaft, lost his balance and tumbled seven floors down. He landed on a tangled pile of two-by-fours, scrap metal and trash heaped at the bottom.

"I remember he just stood up and said, 'I need an ambulance,' and then passed out," Casanova remembers. "In the light--all we had was cigarette lighters--we could see that his head was split open. After that, they took him to the hospital and he went into a coma. His parents took him home. We never saw him again."

Dana Crawford knows the stories. She's heard about the kids, the supposed sacrifices and the dead bodies. But when she looks up at the abandoned flour mill, she sees something else. "It's the epitome of a landmark," she says. "The positioning. The design. The views...It's a stunning building."

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Harrison Fletcher