Detroit resident finally feels at home next to wacky public art project

Would you live next to a house covered in giant polka dots? A Detroit woman doesn't mind

Otila Bell settles into a chair on the front porch of her house, swaddled in coats, sweaters and blankets to ward off the bitter chill. A box of felt-tip markers sits on a table beside her, and steam rises temptingly from a large thermos filled with hot chocolate.

The icy street is silent on this Saturday afternoon, but not for long. "Hey, you wanna sign my house?" Bell hollers as a young couple meander into view. "It's only $1!"

The pair look at each other uncertainly and move on, but Bell's high, girlish voice carries, and within minutes her porch is filled with people waiting to hand over $1 and autograph one of Detroit's most unusual urban salvation ventures: Bell's yellow house, whose steps, front porch, columns and part of the roof have been rehabbed using signers' dollars.

There are signatures from Papua New Guinea, Ukraine, Germany and Brazil, with messages scrawled in a variety of languages and colors. Anthony Bourdain's above the front door may be the most famous on the house, but it is not the most exotic.

To understand how Bell, 62, got into this, you have to look at the houses and yards surrounding her property on Heidelberg Street, in a desolate area east of downtown.

Nearly 30 years ago, an artist named Tyree Guyton, who grew up on the street, began transforming the decaying residential area into what he considered an art project. Empty lots sprouted sculptures made of castoff toys, broken dolls and old appliances. Vacant houses were painted in multihued, whimsical designs, and giant polka dots appeared on the pavement. Fences were adorned with old shoes.

Bell's house was in the midst of this cornucopia of color, and she was not happy.

"To me it was junk," said Bell, whose house has been in her family for more than 40 years. She was particularly dismayed to see crosses planted in a vacant lot where homes had once stood. "Can you imagine? I came out on my front porch one day. There was a pile of dirt with crosses. I said, 'I don't wanna be behind no cemetery like this.'"

But she softened over the years as it became clear that the Heidelberg Project was bringing some joy to this sliver of the vast, economically withering city. In July 2012, after prodding from relatives, Bell decided that the best — actually the only — method for raising money to repair her 124-year-old home's exterior was to take advantage of the Heidelberg Project's popularity by inviting passers-by to autograph her house.

Bell's change of heart was a coup for the project, which from its beginnings has faced resistance. The city bulldozed it twice in the 1990s amid complaints it was an eyesore and nuisance. Since May 2013, fires blamed on arsonists have destroyed several of the project's houses, leaving charred remnants of what used to be cheerful urban canvases. The Heidelberg Project has since erected surveillance cameras and floodlights, improving security on the street.

Winning new fans can only help the nonprofit organization, which offers arts programs for neighborhood children and sells works by local artists from a tiny gift shop next to the house where Guyton grew up.

"The project gives people hope. It's not so gloomy here," said Stacy Risner, the Heidelberg Project's community coordinator. When the daytime temperature is above 25 degrees, Risner works weekends at the gift store, and she makes a point of telling visitors to walk up the street to Bell's house.

Bell, she notes, used to be one of the project's loudest critics. Bell even was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey in 1991 for a show on so-called public nuisances. "Now she's one of our biggest fans," Risner said.

Bell shares her Victorian home with her son, Melvin, and daughter, Tajauana, who on this day had taped clear plastic along the side of the porch to shield her mother from the wind. The plastic rippled in the breeze, but Bell showed no sign of being cold as she eyed the street below, like royalty keeping watch on her subjects.

Most days, if weather permits, Bell spends time on the porch, and Saturday and Sunday afternoons are her busiest period. Cars slowly purr down the street, their occupants snapping pictures and sometimes parking and getting out for a closer look at the Heidelberg Project creations.

Bell's porch looks out on a lot dotted with the kinds of things she once disdained. Stuffed animals are piled high into a colorful boat, which seems in danger of capsizing as a giraffe prepares to board. Spider-Man and a couple of baby dolls, one without a head, occupy a bench facing the street. Wooden slabs painted as clock faces, each showing a different time, are scattered across the landscape.

On the far end of the lot sits the frame of a house, covered in vinyl record albums. To the left of Bell's house is the one where Guyton once lived, its white wood covered in cheerful — some might say gaudy — polka dots in a rainbow of colors. The tree growing outside that house is topped with a couple of shopping carts, and its trunk is covered with toys.

Bell's house looks normal, until you look closer and see the signatures on the porch ceiling, the columns and every exterior wall. Some are faded from years of exposure to rain, snow and blazing sun, but their traces are visible.

Julien Guye, on a business trip from Paris, handed his dollar to Bell, picked out a purple marker and walked to the side of the house to scrawl a brief message. "It's a fun way to help someone who needs it," Guye said.

Bell's hope is to raise enough money to paint her house. That would cover up the signatures, but it doesn't worry Bell, who has no idea how long it will take before she can paint. Money raised so far has gone toward rehab work that needs to be done first.

One thing is certain. Bell is not sold on the idea that stuffed animals stuck on trees or wildly painted houses are art. When she paints her house, it will be yellow with brown trim.

But Bell has grown to appreciate the effect of her fanciful surroundings, which draw visitors year-round to a neighborhood once headed for blight.

"It looks nice now. It looks real nice," Bell said approvingly. "We have one of the nicest places around."

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
60°