Peter Miles Bergman is drawn to the unsanctioned. In 2004, the founder of art-prank society The Institute of Sociometry made his backyard into a faux parking lot to showcase how ridiculous it was that homeowners near the Broncos stadium couldn't sell parking or even to give it away. This year, Bergman turned his attention toward another West Denver reality: newly spruced-up Lakewood Gulch.
The trickling tributary winds through Sun Valley, one of Denver's poorest neighborhoods, before meeting up with the South Platte River. For years, the area around the gulch was a haven for unsanctioned use, including day drinking and urban camping.
Five years ago, a two-year-old boy drowned when he and his mother were caught in a flash flood while walking on the paved path that ran along the gulch. Rehabbing Lakewood Gulch had been on the city's to-do list for years, and partly due to a new light rail line that will run alongside it, the project was completed this spring. Today, Lakewood Gulch looks nothing like the run-down, concrete-choked place where the little boy died. But transforming the gulch into a more open, natural, inviting area pushed the unsanctioned use Bergman so loves deeper into the shadows -- or the woods.
"When they started putting in the light rail tracks, I thought, 'That's the end of that,'" Bergman says. "That changed the 'land forgotten' feel that it had."
Or maybe not. The more Bergman explored, the more he realized that the unsanctioned use hadn't stopped; it had just moved. "There still seems to be people using it as corridor into and out of town, and camping out clandestinely there," he says. He's also seen graffiti and off-leash dog walkers. "The construction created some new pockets where people go and hide out." And go to drink. Bergman says he sees a lot of empty beer bottles.
Click through to read about Bergman's latest prank. So Bergman decided to resurrect a prank he pulled in 2008 called the West Denver Urban Preserve and Trail, or WEDUPT. For that project, he made fake trail markers to highlight what he called "a wholesale assault on unsanctioned use habitat" due to gentrification and flood control infrastructure development. The markers featured a hand making a "W" sign (for "West Side") and icons of a crapping dog, graffiti and a tent, all with slashes through them. This time around, the signs are blaze orange and made to resemble construction signs. They, too, feature the West Side "W." The crapping dog and camping icons are also back, along with new ones warning hikers about potential dangers, such as flash floods and light rail tracks.
"The goal is to make them look official enough that if a construction person saw it, they'd have to call somebody to see if they could take it down," Bergman says. "That, to me, would be the best outcome: If somebody actually had to make some phone calls to figure out, 'What is this? Did you authorize this?'"
In 2008, Bergman happened to install the signs on National Trails Day, which falls on the first Saturday of June. It was a happy accident, and this year, he decided to keep up that tradition. Under a cloak of darkness on Friday night, he installed a new crop of easily removable signs along a 3.3-mile route that follows the water from Denver to Lakewood.
"It's something that was intended to kind of increase awareness and facilitate the unsanctioned use of public space," Bergman says of WEDUPT. "There's a path in that area that's paved, and it's for biking and jogging and taking your dog on a leash. But there's different subsets of the community that do other things, and they kind of find their own path." Bergman's trail markers (and map!) are meant to lead the way.
Here's an excerpt from Bergman's trail map:
Follow the only available path west, keeping an eye on the trail to avoid human manure until the space opens up into a beginner graffiti tagging area. As you are trespassing in this are, look for police, RTD or construction workers prior to dashing either across the light rail bridge or into the parking lot to the left.
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On Saturday morning, Bergman led a hike along his unsanctioned path, and Westword tagged along. Now, we're no fans of nature, and the hike involved more bushwhacking that we'd expected. By the end, our legs were itchy from walking through tall grasses and our calves were scraped from scrambling over loose rocks -- though our feet were the only ones in the entire eight-person hiking party that were not wet from falling into the gulch.
But it was a hike like none other we'd been on before, and it took us along secret, well-worn paths we didn't know existed. Bergman pointed out the sights, including several camps, a beaver dam and a place he called the "hobo enchanted forest." About two and a half miles in, the group stopped underneath a gnarled, graffiti-covered tree to "picnic," a.k.a. drink shooters provided by Bergman. Ours was peach vodka.
Click through to see photos from our hike. Click through for more photos. Click through for even more photos.
More from our Art archive: "History Colorado Center to bring back Denver diorama: What about bloody buffalo hunt?"