Battling Blight in Detroit
A new private-public partnership succeeds where government has failed.

Vacant stores in Detroit


These are just a few examples. Red tape abounds, driving up the cost. Tearing down a single blight building typically takes between $10,000 and $12,000. In other words, to eradicate existing blight in Detroit would cost about half a billion dollars at the current rate. And that’s in a city with a $327 million accumulated deficit, a cash-flow deficit nearing $100 million, and $14.9 billion in unfunded liabilities. So Detroiters can be forgiven for their skepticism that things will ever change.

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Although Detroit’s government has failed to solve its blight problem, artists and charitable groups have been making small strides in recent decades.

When race riots broke out in Detroit in 1967, Heidelberg Street in East Detroit was located in one of the hardest-hit areas. Like the Motor City itself, Heidelberg Street didn’t recover afterward. The block continued to deteriorate until one day in 1986 when an artist named Tyree Guyton had an idea. Guyton, who lives in Detroit, used discarded objects and paint to turn the blighted buildings into open-air art installations.

So began the Heidelberg Project, which transforms abandoned buildings into art. Heidelberg Street itself is a permanent art installation; Guyton and other volunteers have decorated buildings with stuffed animals, records, shopping carts, telephones, doll parts, and other bizarre items, creating garishly colorful displays. One might find them creepy, but blocks away, unadorned blight buildings mar the landscape, a genuine menace to neighbors. In comparison, the Heidelberg Project’s metamorphosed buildings appear more whimsical than scary. (View pictorial of the Heidelberg Project installations)

Guyton and his project have been featured in Time and Essence magazines, and on the Today show and other national media. The Heidelberg was the subject of an Emmy-winning HBO documentary, and pieces from the project have gone on display in Europe and Australia. Meanwhile, Heidelberg Street’s artistic fame has made it a top tourist attraction in Detroit — a draw that has kept the neighborhood safer. The Heidelberg Project also provides art education to children and collaborates with other community groups to lead neighborhood-revitalization projects around Detroit.

“We don’t really understand the impact of walking past a nasty, burnt-out building,” says Jenenne Whitfield, the executive director of the Heidelberg Project. “You can fix that script, you can turn things around. Ultimately, isn’t that what we want — to empower people? We don’t want to empower buildings, but they become the catalyst.”