Welcome to Intelligent Travel's newest column: Neighborhood Watch, in which we highlight what's happening in urban enclaves.
Despite Detroit’s well-publicized urban blight, Heidelberg Street has maintained its place as a bright spot in an otherwise concrete wasteland for the past 22 years. The street's abandoned homes have been cheerfully re-imagined with thousands of splattered polka dots and vacant lots are plastered with spray-painted doll heads, stuffed animals, and rusty bicycles.
Once host to more than 300 African-American-owned businesses, the inner-city east side neighborhood was destroyed by the 1967 Detroit race riots. In 1986, local artist Tyree Guyton and his grandfather and wife took paintbrush and broom to the neighborhood, now known as the Heidelberg Project, in the hopes of transforming the urban decay into a public art environment. Cleaning up vacant lots, they collected junk and trash and repurposed it as art to link the concepts of discarded objects and discarded communities and people.
Though the site has drawn myriad supporters and inspired similar art projects, the city council hasn't always been a fan. The square block of street art has twice weathered city demolition (in 1991 and 1999), managing to not only survive but evolve into one of the top tourist attractions of Detroit today.
“The greatest asset in Detroit is the people—they have remarkable survival skills,” says Jenenne Whitfield, executive director of the Heidelberg Project. “Tyree felt his work was so important that some bulldozers could not keep him down. And each time he rebuilt, the project came back stronger.”
Though the Heidelberg Project remains in what the 2005 U.S. Census figures deemed the country’s most economically depressed zip code (housing trends indicate only one house will still be standing in 2014), it also has emerged as a dynamic and thriving community organization “designed to improve lives and neighborhoods through art.”
The mission appears to be working. More than 275,000 people visit Heidelberg yearly, spurred in part by national media coverage like a recent Kate Moss photo shoot featuring the neighborhood’s Dotty Wotty House (pictured). Plus, the organization brags that no serious crimes have been reported on the street since the project’s conception, and the Heidelberg community provides art education to a nearby elementary school whose art program was eliminated by Detroit Public Schools.
But perhaps Heidelberg's greatest accomplishment is its ability to transcend contrasting layers of society. "It’s not unusual to see a school teacher talking with a streetwalker," Whitfield says. "[The art] creates a conversation piece that puts everyone on the same level."
Travelers are welcome to visit the neighborhood either on their own or by guided tour. Visitors are asked to admire from the sidewalks and, of course, be respectful of the community.