Driving from the wealthy suburbs on the outskirts of the city into downtown Detroit is always an unsettling experience. Crossing Alter Road, the border between the two, is crossing into an alternate reality.
Bringing Some Color to Detroit Projects
Driving from the wealthy suburbs on the outskirts of the city into downtown Detroit is always an unsettling experience. Crossing Alter Road, the border between the two, is crossing into an alternate reality. Pristine lawns and sprawling homes are replaced by abandoned buildings, empty lots, urban decay. Prosperity is replaced by poverty. The dismal grays of Detroit stand in stark contrast to the green lawns and striking lake views of Grosse Pointe.
But on the drive downtown, those grays are sporadically, and startlingly, interrupted by unexpected bursts of color. On the doors of these decrepit buildings, on the sunken walls of homes devastated by arson and storefronts dilapidated from years of neglect, there are polka dots. Big, bright, polka dots painted carefully on an otherwise bleak and colorless landscape.
The polka dots seem to be leading somewhere, taking Detroiters on a treasure hunt to find the place from which these bright spots emanate. Turning onto the narrow Heidelberg Street nestled in the heart of the city; those in search of such a place will find what they are looking for. Here, they will find the Heidelberg Project.
The Heidelberg Project is a series of homes, cars, trees and open lots that have been converted–through paint, garbage, stuffed animals, dolls, planks of wood and even motorboats–into art. This bright spot in the otherwise dreary city has been a living part of Detroit’s history since founded in 1986 by Tyree Guyton, along with his wife Kim and his grandfather, Sam Mackey.
The Project began as a way to combat crime in this Detroit neighborhood, preserving the rundown buildings and offering a sign of hope and energy in an otherwise dismal environment. One of the early tasks of the Project was to renovate the exterior of a local crack house, and in the process, turn away business.
"After the first three police raids, it opened right up again. After the fourth raid we couldn’t stand it anymore. So we went over and painted the place," Guyton told People magazine in 1988. "Pink, blue, yellow, white and purple dots and squares all over it. Up there on the roof we stuck a baby doll and that bright blue inner tube, and on the porch we put a doghouse with a watchdog inside…Now all day long people drive by and stop to stare at the place…Believe me, in front of an audience like that, nobody’s going to sell crack out of that house anymore."
Some variation of these whimsical and strange decorations is reflected in the other installations. One abandoned home, since demolished, was covered in discarded mattresses, air conditioners and planks of wood, signifying how we all live in our own boxed in perceptions of the world. Another was painted with pictures of shoes and boots skipping across its surface, a comment on joyful Detroiters filled with the spirit of movement and dance.
Other pieces of the Project seem to be there solely to bring an element of humor and vibrancy to the otherwise bleak neighborhood. One home on the outskirts of the street is covered on every surface by brightly colored stuffed animals. In the center of an empty lot on Heidelberg Street, there sits a rundown motorboat piled high with toys and stuffed animals that seem to be preparing for a ride across nearby Lake St. Clair. These elements evoke color and energy that seems to be otherwise sparse in the city.
Each installation has a message or a mission. Be it to invalidate a local drug network, encourage recycling or educate locals as to the ills of the community, the founders of the Heidelberg Project refuse to take the decline of their city lying down.
"The Baby Doll House had to do with the overall philosophy. Childhood prostitution, the educational system, the war killing our young folks," Guyton said. "The Dotty Wotty (polka dot house) is a reflection of all people with the image of Dr. Martin Luther King. Today we still live in a country where racism is very prevalent and is a problem we have not solved. We don’t understand the significance of respecting other races."
The Project seems to have had its desired effect. In a city that was recently ranked second most dangerous in the country, there has not been a serious crime committed on Heidelberg Street since the Project’s inception, no small feat for the otherwise treacherous neighborhood. The Project attracts over 275,000 visitors annually, and was at one point one of the top three most visited attractions in the city of Detroit.
However, despite the positive influence the Project seems to have had on the surrounding community, the City of Detroit has been less convinced of its merits. In 1991, approximately 80% of the entire installation, including several houses and sculptures, was destroyed. In 1999 nearly half of the remaining project was demolished.
There are various speculations as to why the City decided to destroy part of this seemingly benevolent contribution to Detroit. Some write the Project off as a fire hazard and a breeding ground for vermin. Others see it as an eyesore. However, some think it is the Projects’ implicit criticism of the local government, in its neglect of abandoned homes and refusal to seal, demolish or maintain said properties that led the City to retaliate.
"Why is anyone’s guess," said Heidelberg Project Executive Director Jenenne Whitfield. "However, what is known is that the Project was very political and both demolitions usually occurred during election time."
Although Detroit has at times rejected the Heidelberg Project, other cities seem to have embraced it. Guyton and Whitfield were invited to Mt. Vernon, New York to reinvent the negative image of a local park. They worked with children and senior citizens from the community to bring an installation known as Circle of Life to what was unofficially known as Wino Park, using tires, hubcaps and their trademark polka dots to communicate the theme.
In St. Paul, Minnesota, Guyton oversaw the creation of an installment titled Soul People…How beautiful are the feet of them who carry glad tidings. This was a home covered in shoes, and was dedicated to the memory of children and teens who have been victimized by urban crime. There have also been open-air installations on the streets of Bloomington, Cambridge and Minneapolis. In 2004 and 2005, the Project had installations in Australia, France, Germany and Italy, and Guyton exhibited his work at several universities across the country.
It seems that the Heidelberg Project will continue to grow in prevalence and influence. Its unique way of approaching the urban maladies of crime and desperation injects color and energy into these forlorn and forgotten neighborhoods.
It teaches community members to take pride in their surroundings and to find hope in the hopeless, while simultaneously providing a powerful and smart social commentary on how these neighborhoods came to be in such disrepair.
"We are helping people to see within themselves a way out of the cycle of poverty, hopelessness," Whitfield said.
With the bright colors and funky creations that run up and down Heidelberg Street, it would be hard to feel hopeless. But aside from the mad installations and odd visuals that flood the area, there is a sense of optimism, a sense of action and movement that is largely absent from the rest of the city. It may be only a matter of time until the rest of the world is covered in polka dots.