Make your way past the Port Richmond Village Shopping Center, weave underneath I-95, dodge the cars drag-racing down Beach Street, and you'll reach a locked gate.

Hop over, slip around, or duck under it and you're on the well-worn path to what's known as Graffiti Pier - a postindustrial ruin, open-air art gallery, and informal park that has, in recent years, become perhaps Philadelphia's worst-kept secret.

The 500-foot-long pier has long drawn teenagers from the River Wards to drink beer and ride dirt bikes. But in the last few years, it has become almost mainstream: the site of more than 3,000 Instagrams, a half-dozen music videos, and, a few weeks ago, a well-attended and fully amplified rock show. Just a week before that, the pier made news for a different reason: A man and two women were robbed and sexually assaulted at gunpoint, in daylight. No arrest has been made.

That scared away some regulars - but by no means all of them.

After all, the qualities that make a place like Graffiti Pier dangerous - its isolation and lawlessness, its grit, its feeling of a wilderness in the city - are the same things people love about it. To make it safe, admirers wonder: Would that destroy it?

Technically, Graffiti Pier is not a park. It was Pier 124, where coal was loaded onto ships for transport, part of a waterfront industrial complex. It's owned by Conrail, which closed it in 1991.

It didn't take long for explorers to discover the hulking concrete and rebar of the old coal-car dumper and make it their own.

The pier was already a ruin by the time B.J. Evans, a Fishtown resident, first wandered into the place six or seven years ago. "It was pretty awesome, so I kept going back," he said.

The most constant danger is the racing cars on Beach Street. "It's like The Fast and the Furious back here," he said, walking toward the pier Sunday afternoon.

Make it past that, and you're back to nature - sort of.

"There's always a paintball game," he said on the trail through high-weed trees. "They'll call a cease-fire for you, though."

He's seen New Year's Eve fireworks there, and midnight circles around a fire pit. After heavy snowstorms, he's watched snowboarders build ramps and perform elaborate tricks. Mostly, he goes to fish - he's caught bass, stripers, and lots of catfish.

If you go often enough, he points out, you can watch the place evolve. The artwork is constantly changing. There's always a variety of flotsam, too - furniture, underwear, condoms, and knives. And, there's the slow work of the trees pushing through the concrete, and the river slowly reclaiming the pier as storms carve out new and perilous sinkholes.

"It's different every time. That's why I like coming," he said. "If it was a park, it'd be cleaned up too much. The rawness is sort of the draw to it."

The crowd, too, is ever-changing - and ever more diverse.

Lydia Heier, 22, of Kensington, goes running back there by herself.

"I guess a lot of people know about it now," she said. "Two years ago, no one was here."

Also there on Sunday: The owners of Vela, a Web-design firm, looking for edgy new publicity photos. Greg Bowser, the photographer, had been wanting to do a shoot there: "I have photographer friends who bring models here. DJs come down here for press shots because it has a unique, grungy look to it."

Also visiting were Jamie Igou and Lauren Burawski, in town from Wilmington, cans of spray paint in hand, to make their mark on the concrete structure. They had read about it online. They shared the space with kids asking if anyone had a Band-Aid, a lingerie model, beer-drinking bikers, and a woman who had ventured out alone, carrying a book in one hand and a container of pepper spray in the other.

On Beach Street, a police car rolled by the entrance to the path, sending about a hundred cars scattering. The cars usually do a lap around the Port Richmond neighborhood and come back, Evans said.

Capt. George Kappe of the 26th District said the street racing was on his radar. He's confiscated ATVs and motorcycles there before. But securing the pier is tougher.

"Because of the remoteness, especially back by the river, that is an extreme challenge," he said. "It's not part of our normal patrol only because it's not easily accessible."

John Enright, a spokesman for Conrail, seemed resigned.

"You can't effectively fence the entire area off, and, typically, fencing would not necessarily deter people who are really intent on trespassing," he said. "We do routinely police the area. . . . It's not foolproof, obviously."

No private security was apparent Sunday.

Neighborhood and waterfront advocates would like to see the pier's longtime public use preserved in a safe and sustainable manner.

Shanta Schachter, deputy director of the New Kensington Community Development Corp., said the constant foot traffic "speaks loudly to people's interest in accessing the waterfront." She noted that the area was recommended for public space in the city's master plan for the waterfront.

Emma Fried-Cassorla, a spokeswoman for the Delaware River Waterfront Corp., said that was still a hope.

"We'd really like to see it preserved, and also for the graffiti art on it to somehow be incorporated into a larger park system," she said. But, she added, that's not likely to happen in the near future.

Conrad Benner, who blogs about street art, wrote a love letter to the pier on his site, StreetsDept.com, last summer. He's been going there for two years, and said people from across the tristate area were constantly emailing him, asking for directions.

He thinks a destination like the pier - once it's been made safe for the tourists already visiting - could be a major draw for Philadelphia. He'd like to see police patrols and guardrails - but not, he said, too much curation or regulation.

"The way I look at it is, Graffiti Pier was abandoned by industry many years ago, but it wasn't abandoned by Philadelphia."

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@samanthamelamed