In Birmingham, Everyone Has Keys to the City Residents of Birmingham, England, awoke recently to find pianos spray-painted with the words "Play me I'm yours" scattered across the city. It's the work of an art collective that wants to create unity and wonder in a place where both are scarce.
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In Birmingham, Everyone Has Keys to the City

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In Birmingham, Everyone Has Keys to the City

In Birmingham, Everyone Has Keys to the City

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

People in Birmingham, England woke up recently to find pianos scattered across the city. They're the work of a local art collective that in the past has also suspended an orchestra in hot air balloons.

As Vicki Barker reports, the organizers are trying to create a sense of unity and wonder in a place where both are in short supply.

Mr. GURDAN THOMAS (Street Musician): One, two, three, four.

(Soundbite of music)

VICKI BARKER: Street musician Gurdan Thomas pounds a battered, paint-spattered upright piano just outside Birmingham's rag market, accompanied by guitar and homemade drum. As the trio plays, the human tide around it slows - women wearing the hijab walking arm-in-arm, sturdy young mothers - their red-faced babies bundled up against a cold drizzle, and men - some of them working the nearby stalls, some of them clearly not working at all. They loiter in little groups watching and commenting and smiling.

At any given moment, 15 little scenes like this are playing out across Birmingham, the brainchild of artist Luke Jerram and commissioned by Kevin Isaacs of Birmingham's Fierce art collective.

Mr. KEVIN ISAACS (Executive Producer, Fierce Art Collective): We've had kids of 14 or 15 years of age from all communities making their own types of music. We've had people of 70 and 80 years old playing music-hall-type stuff - which is absolutely brilliant, that's exactly what it's about.

BARKER: One of those watching is school librarian Sue Baker. Her suburban high school got one of the pianos.

Ms. SUE BAKER (School Librarian): It's getting people talking who you wouldn't normally talk to. And the people that you can't imagine play. You shouldn't assume, but people - and the children, and they're coming and they're playing. And I'm saying teach me. Teach me, I want to do it too.

(Soundbite of piano keys clinking)

BARKER: It's been a cold and wet March, and standing outside hasn't done the pianos much good. Outside the Allens Croft Primary School, fifth graders Simran Sahota, Robert Corcoran, Dailan Korta and Bethany Basnick embody in miniature Birmingham's racial and ethnic potpourri. They crowd around their piano, now painted a dazzling pink and gray, all the black keys have been covered in sequins, pom-poms, buttons, even pencil shavings. Bethany Basnick.

Ms. BETHANY BASNICK (Student, Allens Croft Primary School): Well, we came to school and it was all broke, so we took all the things off, and we took them -we take them into class and everyone's decorated it, and then we started to paint all this and stuck everything on, so it looks all nice.

BARKER: Robert Corcoran says boys and girls have taken to the piano.

Mr. ROBERT CORCORAN (Student, Allens Croft Primary School): I think it's fun, because like, just in case we can't play football, we can come down here and we can play the piano.

Mr. JASON KONCIW: All the hammers there have been stuck. People have just been too heavy-handed with it. Oh, it's a shame, and it's a shame.

BARKER: Back at the rag market, 37-year-old Jason Konciw strikes some keys, shakes his head.

Mr. KONCIW: Oh, it's a shame. I don't like to see pianos like this, neglected.

BARKER: Jason's unemployed, like so many here where the jobless rate is at least double the national average. In some Birmingham neighborhoods, one in three men has never had a job.

Mr. KONCIW: I'd love to work in a piano shop, like. I'd simply love it. I'd do anything to work in a piano shop.

Ms. KATIE KILLEN: You been avoiding me? Sit you down.

BARKER: A few feet away, 72-year-old Katie Killen sits bundled up in a beach chair, surrounded by bright cut roses and chrysanthemums. She's worked this flower stall for 47 years. She says the piano music is...

Ms. KILLEN: Very good, and it cheers the place up, you understand, it cheers them up. We need cheering up in here...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KILLEN: Ta-da, then. God bless.

BARKER: For NPR News, I'm Vicki Barker in Birmingham, England.

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