Five Points art installation is 'about the hopes and dreams of a community'

Candy Chang’s “Before I Die…” installation came to life in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood this fall as a result of a collaborative effort between the University of Colorado’s College of Architecture and Planning, Denver Parks and Recreation, local business and community leaders and the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design.

The installation, which started in New Orleans on the side of a vacant house after Hurricane Katrina, has grown to a worldwide work of art as individuals in communities around the world record what they want to do before they die on giant chalkboards in public spaces. Chang is a renowned international artist who focuses on contemplative works in urban environments.

John Hayden, a student in CAP’s Master of Urban and Regional Planning program, this fall brought the idea to community groups in Five Points. He was inspired by a presentation by Jennifer Steffel Johnson, PhD, associate chair and instructor, Department of Planning and Design, in her Community Development class. Steffel Johnson explained how art installation can be an example of a community catalyzing project.

“The installation is about the hopes and dreams of a community, and I thought it would be the perfect way to start a conversation about what local Five Points residents want to see happen in their community,” Hayden said.

Community leaders agreed, and after some quick discussions with Denver Parks and Recreation and Denver’s office of Arts and Venues, the installation was constructed in Sonny Lawson Park at 24th and Welton streets by local contractor Denver Design Build and painted by students from The Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design. “It was only about a month from the time I saw the idea in class to the date it was installed with a big community party at the park,” Hayden said. “It was amazing to see how fast and easy it was to make this happen when so many groups came together to do their parts.”

On Sept. 28 the installation opened with a community potluck that featured jazz and dance performances. People from all walks of life attended the event and recorded their dreams in chalk on the installation.

“My hope was that the installation would bring people to the park to talk about what they wanted to see in Five Points. We had plans of what we’d do when vandalism happened. Honestly, I just expected we’d have to rebuild it a couple times,” said Hayden, “but people have really respected the installation. They stop and read it and take time to write their dreams and we have had not a single incident of vandalism. I think that because the installation is about the community, because people are asked to participate in the art, they have felt a sense of ownership and have wanted to take care of it.”

The content is as diverse as the people who live in Five Points.  “Be President,” “skydive naked,” “see all my children content,” and “love with reckless abandon” are just a few of the many thousands of dreams that have been recorded since the installation opened.  The work has inspired others to take an active role in their community. After the initial party, a group of neighbors got together to form a park stewardship program that will care for this historic but often neglected park.

The installation will be up through the month of November at which time it may be moved to another location in the city for other communities to use as a way to start discussions about the hopes and dreams of the people of Denver.

(Photo: The “Before I Die…” installation in Sonny Lawson Park in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood)

Contact: Master of Urban and Regional Planning program student John Hayden at [email protected]

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