Amid the austere architecture of collapse that describes most of this city’s East Side, one block of Heidelberg Street stands out. Brightly colored polka dots adorn the houses. Shopping carts and crucified teddy bears climb the trunk of a limbless tree. Faces with multiple rows of teeth grin forth from sheets of plywood, some of them inscribed with the cryptic words "God," "War," "Police" and "1967"—the year of the uprising of discontent (riot, if you prefer) that left forty-three people dead and more than 1,000 injured.
The Heidelberg Project, as it is called, is the creation of one Tyree Guyton, who with help from his family and later from other local artists gathered cast-off junk in a cast-off city and turned it into something at once painful and beautiful. At its best, the US Social Forum, the gathering of activists and organizers convened three miles away in downtown, felt a bit like Guyton’s polka-dotted vision: some scarred, slender hope emerging from the ashes, anomie and oil-slicked debris of American political life.
From the June 22 march that kicked off the Forum—at which a diverse crowd of several thousand drummed and danced their way through Detroit’s empty streets—to the more than 1,000 workshops spread around town, the mood was relentlessly cheerful. For five packed days, activists who are embattled all year long could be happy for one another’s company. Their high spirits, though, were everywhere shadowed by a multitude of crises that extend far beyond mass unemployment and foreclosures. Outside the glass walls of the riverside Cobo convention center were two wars, a rising know-nothing movement, politicians who respond to growing poverty by cutting assistance to the poor, a virulent racism spreading north from the Southern border, an entire coastline laid waste by corporate plunder and a putatively progressive president who misses few opportunities to kneel before the wealthy.
Detroit’s was the second US Social Forum. The first was held in Atlanta in 2007 as an extension of the World Social Forum, the convening of the global left held annually since 2001, most often in Porto Alegre, Brazil. The idea was to provide a space where organizers and activists on the grassroots left could exchange ideas and tactics and collaborate to craft a broader strategy. "The movement in the US is at such a low level," says Jerome Scott, one of the key organizers of the 2007 conference, "that we can’t afford to pull together all this effort and not have it be about movement building."