Never mind the phantom Rio Nuevo or other Tucson projects that are all hot air and no action.

The polka dot house centerpiece of Detroit Heidelberg Project/Ryn Gargulinski

Our fair Old Pueblo would get the boost it needs with the simple installation of a wonderland similar to Detroit’s Heidelberg Project.

Rather than sad, abandoned and packed with yellow-eyed druggies, inner city vacant lots and a handful of homes burst with color, humor – and dozens of chairs, tables, shoes, doors, bottles, windows, tires, tiles and mannequin parts, Santa Claus, Tweety Birds and other stuffed animals.

OK, the installation may not be so simple, since this glorious display of art and creativity consumes two whole blocks in Detroit’s decaying McDougall-Hunt neighborhood along Heidelberg Street, southwest of Mack Avenue and Mt Elliot Street.

Some have called the funky display the “Ghetto Gugggenheim” while project literature notes this nabe is the most depressed area in the entire nation.

Yes, some fru-fru tourists are still scared to get out of their cars.

Yet the longstanding display of paintings, illustrations and debris-turned-artwork draws others from their vehicles – and around the country.

The captivating project has been in the making since 1986, kicked off by artist and  founder Tyree Guyton.

At the age of 12, during Detroit’s Nain-Rouge-inspired 1967 riots, Guyton watched his city blaze to ashes. Detroit has been decaying ever since, but Guyton’s brazen oasis is hope sprouting from charred remains.

The Heidelberg Project has become the third most visited tourist attraction in Detroit, the literature tells us, although it does not mention the top two destinations. We’ll guess the Renaissance Center and Belle Isle, or perhaps the garish downtown statue of a giant Joe Louis’s fist.

Guyton’s mom still lives in Heidelberg’s centerpiece polka dot house, first fashioned for the artist’s Grandpa Sam’s love of jelly beans.

Heidelberg Project Detroit/Ryn Gargulinski

“Tyree got the idea that people were like jellybeans – all similar, yet different – all the colors together,” Heidelberg literature says. “Well, those jellybeans inspired a dot here, a dot there, a dotty wotty house and a polka-dot street, a celebration of color, diversity and harmony.”

Yes, the project has had its dissenters. The city demolished parts of the Heidelberg Project in 1991 and again in 1999. But you can’t keep a good idea down. And no one can keep the momentum from growing.

Not only has Guyton’s project and artwork won awards, it spawned a series of programs.

The Cultural Village project aims for sustainable living in the inner city, complete with eco-friendly homes and businesses as well as urban agriculture that goes beyond weeds.

The House that Makes Sense is the project administrative center at 42 Watson Street, which doubles as an art space for kids’ activities and artists-in-residence.

Heidelberg’s Art, Community, Environment and Education program offers tours and presentations of the project for school kids as well as lessons plans now used by the Michigan Art Education Association’s 2010 conference.

Art can really change the world – or at least a few formerly rotting blocks in Detroit. And one artist really can make a difference.

The Heidelberg Project is definitely on my destination list every time I visit Michigan, where I happened to be last week. New stuff springs up all the time in this ever evolving display. The thing now has an information booth and donation bin, where I put last week’s wages (kidding).



What do you think?

Is the Heidelberg Project amazing or disgusting?

Would you welcome such a display to a decaying neighborhood near you?

Can you imagine what we could do with those abandoned downtown Tucson storefronts?