K. Scott Kreider

A quirky take on neighborhood improvement in the Motor City.

In the minds of most Americans, Detroit is a poster child for post-industrial urban decay. With a population that has been reduced from 2 million to 800,000, and with more than 30 percent of the buildings abandoned, the cityscape of Detroit is a bleak one. Empty skyscrapers, crumbling factories, and dilapidated homes are scattered throughout the Motor City, inspiring photographic “ruin porn” that some have called exploitive. The GM corporate office is still in operation, but to many, it operates as a memorial to hope, aloof from the surrounding desolation. This month the city reached an agreement that will allow them to retain control of its finances, after a period of uncertainty over whether the Republican state government would install an “emergency manager.”

Yet, in spite of Detroit’s financial woes, there are reasons for optimism. The remaining residents preserve a deep pride in their city, and a fierce determination to restore it from the bottom up. A promising influx of bold, young entrepreneurs is opening cafes and storefronts. Community gardens are sprouting up in vacant lots, and artists are transforming the face of the city. Detroit is resurgent, if you care to dig deeper than the media’s treatment of the city. One such artist, Tyree Guyton, is converting the urban decay around him into an especially unique vision of his community.

The Heidelberg Project is an art environment that spans two Detroit city blocks. Guyton began the project almost twenty years ago in 1986, in response to the deterioration of his neighborhood, which was being consumed by drugs, poverty, and violence. He turned to art for a solution. H began by cleaning up vacant lots, working alongside his grandfather and local children. He reused the detritus they collected from the lots to build what has become both a piece of art and vision of his community. Attaching found items on the walls of deserted homes, he transformed the structures into “gigantic art sculptures.” Empty lots became public art gardens. Soon the neighborhood had polka-dotted streets. Shopping carts peeked out of trees and stuffed animals hang from houses. Guyton, who began with a devastated city space, has slowly converted Heidelberg Street into a colorful, imaginative artscape that inspires play, dialogue, and new ideas about how to rebuild a community.

“I began to change the environment,” says Guyton. “I began to change myself. And this had an effect on the people.” Since the project’s inception, there hasn’t been a serious crime reported on Heidelberg Street. A place once riddled with drugs and violence is now a positive public space where children play and visitors can wander at ease. Guyton brought art into an ailing community and invited its members as participants, even co-creators – a move which gave the impoverished community a sense of ownership and pride.

Today, the Heidelberg Project has become a full-fledged movement, with a full staff, a new office location, an information booth, resident artists, and a gallery. The Project holds events like festivals, public lectures, workshops, and art openings for emerging artists at their gallery space. They host school field trips and run educational programs like ACE2 (Art, Community & Environmental Education). By conservative estimates, HP attracts 50,000 visitors a year, though many estimate the number to be closer to 250,000 a year.  A study done by Williams College estimates that it contributes around 3.4 million dollars to the economy of Wayne County.

Jenenne Whitfield, executive director of the organization, calls the project a new approach to reimagining communities through the lens of art. Their philosophy is that art can act as a catalyst for social change, a medicine that affects the minds and attitudes of community members, ultimately changing behaviors. One only has to visit Heidelberg Street to see that this is the case. It’s art, it’s activism, it’s education – the Heidelberg Project’s success points to its repeatability in other broken communities, offering postindustrial “shrinking cities” a model for the future.

Find out more at www.heidelberg.org.

All images (c) K. Scott Kreider.

This post originally appeared on Architizer, an Atlantic partner site.

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