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Detroit: The Heidelberg Project

It feels like I’ve pulled up in the driveway at Wonderland. Buried in the roadside verge, roof poking out above the grass, is a pink car. The trees that are not decorated with shopping trolleys and giant cuddly toys have ticking clocks attached to them.

Detroit: The Heidelberg Project
Image: By Santosdo (Own work) (CC-BY-SA-3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

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I park outside a handsome old wooden house that has multi-coloured numbers painted all over it, like something from a children’s TV programme. The house would be a prized possession anywhere else. Put something with such a vintage look and generous garden space on the market in Manhattan or San Francisco and it would fetch millions.

But this isn’t Manhattan or San Francisco. It’s Detroit; poor, bedraggled Detroit. The Motor City has become something of a byword for urban blight. Drive around the city and you’ll see thousands of abandoned homes, being reclaimed by weeds and having the life choked out of them by boarded windows, graffiti and litter.

A combination of economic downturn, in what was once the US’ richest city per capita, and population flight to the leafy satellite towns has knocked the stuffing out of Detroit. Attempts to rebuild are starting from the centre and spreading outwards. Many areas are effectively being abandoned as the rebirth starts small.

Heidelberg Street isn’t going down without a fight, however. It’s found in one of the less salubrious areas of the city — and it’s a city with no shortage of insalubrious areas. Signs warn visitors to lock cars and keep anything valuable out of sight.

But the street itself doesn’t feel unsafe, depressed or forsaken. It’s more whimsical and psychedelic, as though a clown might skip down the road at any minute, handing out sherbet fountains and giant, multi-coloured lollipops.

The bizarre, creative act of defiance known as the Heidelberg Project started in 1986 when artist Tyree Guyton decided to paint polka dots on the side of his grandfather’s house. After initial confusion, and more than a little resistance from the city authorities, the weirdness slowly spread. Neighbours allowed him to decorate their houses too; unused land was occupied by artworks such as boats filled with stuffed animals or monsters made out of scrap metal; artists started to move on to the street to be a part of it.

The result is something you walk down, perplexed. A lot of the unexpected additions to the streetscape are clearly political in nature — cardboard cut-outs of a cheesy, grinning politician are plastered with slogans such as ‘Detroit Police stop killing kids’, for example.

Other works — the stacks of vacuum cleaners, the Sesame Street Elmo toys strapped to the wall in the crucifix position — just induce head-scratching.

But they do make you take notice — and that’s the key thing. Halfway down the street is a wooden booth, manned in shifts by volunteers. As thousands have done before, I sidle over and ask what’s going on.

“In the early ’80s, this was a really rough area,” I’m told. “Abandoned homes, crime, the works. But now, within a few blocks’ radius at least, I’m proud to say that it’s low crime.

“All the neighbours are friends and advocates for the project. It’s a real community again.”

Heidelberg Street is now somewhere that people go out of their way to come to and see. It’s a place where there’s nothing clear-cut about what’s junk and what’s art. But it strikes home the idea that even though something is abandoned, it isn’t necessarily without value. The message to Detroit — and to the world — is that nothing and nowhere is beyond redemption if you give it the attention it needs. It’s what you do with what you’ve got that counts.

www.heidelberg.org