From Collection to Community: The Transformation of Detroit’s Iconic, 30-Year Public Art Project

The Heidelberg Project is being partly dismantled, but hopes to live on as an artistic community.

Leyland DeVito

The Taxi House, one of the art houses in the Heidelberg Project, was set on fire in 2014. (Flickr / ellenm1)
By the 1980s, Tyree Guyton’s child­hood stomp­ing grounds on Hei­del­berg Street on Detroit’s east side were near­ly unrec­og­niz­able from the mid­dle-class neigh­bor­hood of his youth — a vic­tim of the city’s rapid pop­u­la­tion drop and con­tin­ued loss of man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs.

Inspired by a vision, in 1986 the high school dropout start­ed clean­ing up the vacant lots with the help of his grand­fa­ther. They began recon­fig­ur­ing the emp­ty hous­es into col­or­ful art instal­la­tions. The project soon took up mul­ti­ple blocks. Lots that were once vacant and over­grown with weeds now housed an ever-chang­ing out­door art gallery that includ­ed a Noah’s Ark” (a boat piled high with dis­card­ed stuffed ani­mals), car hoods paint­ed with grin­ning faces, and whim­si­cal clock faces nailed into trees and tele­phone poles. The Hei­del­berg Project would become one of Detroit’s biggest tourist des­ti­na­tions, a phan­tas­mago­ria of paint­ings and found-object sculp­tures that drew admir­ers from the sub­urbs and around the world.

The project has been an integral part of the evolution of the city’s street art, as well as an act of protest drawing attention to a forgotten neighborhood.

But as the project cel­e­brat­ed its 30th anniver­sary this sum­mer, the Hei­del­berg Project announced it would dis­man­tle the instal­la­tions over the next two years.

Hei­del­berg Project exec­u­tive direc­tor Jenenne Whit­field says this isn’t the end of Guyton’s involve­ment in the neigh­bor­hood — just the begin­ning of a new phase. Whit­field, who is also Guyton’s wife, says the goal is to tran­si­tion to a new artis­tic com­mu­ni­ty — though get­ting the com­mu­ni­ty on board has always been a chal­lenge for the project.

We’re remov­ing the bur­den from one man’s back and now mak­ing it more of a col­lec­tive effort,” she says. We’re not aban­don­ing any­thing. But we’re get­ting old­er, and we’re try­ing to train our junior peo­ple to take over.” Guy­ton, who turned 61 this August, is call­ing the new phase Hei­del­berg 3.0.” (In a typ­i­cal­ly Guy­ton quirk, there was no Hei­del­berg 2.0.”)

Whit­field says the instal­la­tions in the neighborhood’s vacant lots will be sold off to muse­ums and pri­vate col­lec­tions, but the Hei­del­berg Project’s per­ma­nent struc­tures are expect­ed to remain. The plan is to make the Dot­ty Wot­ty House” (Guyton’s child­hood home, cov­ered in col­or­ful pol­ka dots) into a muse­um ded­i­cat­ed to pre­serv­ing the project’s his­to­ry. Anoth­er struc­ture, the near­by Num­ber House” (cov­ered in hand-paint­ed num­bers), could become a gift shop.

Beyond that, Whit­field says Hei­del­berg 3.0 depends on draw­ing like-mind­ed indi­vid­u­als to the com­mu­ni­ty. She points to one neigh­bor who inher­it­ed three hous­es her fam­i­ly owned. After talk­ing to Guy­ton, she decid­ed not to sell and instead will use them to cre­ate artists’ studios.

Whit­field says there’s good rea­son for more peo­ple to get behind the project: Accord­ing to a 2011 study by Williams Col­lege, the com­bined impact of the Hei­del­berg Project’s expen­di­tures, along with those of its some 200,000 annu­al vis­i­tors, amounts to $3.4 mil­lion annu­al­ly. We proved that it can work, and we also proved that it can help build a new econ­o­my,” Whit­field says. We want to take that to the next level.”

The project has been an inte­gral part of the evo­lu­tion of the city’s street art, as well as an act of protest draw­ing atten­tion to a for­got­ten neigh­bor­hood. We pro­vid­ed a free muse­um for the world,” Whit­field says. Who does that?”

But not every­one is a fan. The project’s neigh­bors say it’s an eye­sore that draws unwant­ed atten­tion to the community.

The art-or-eye­sore debate has raged through­out the project’s 30-year exis­tence. Twice dur­ing the 1990s, the city razed some of the struc­tures, cit­ing blight. Since 2013, at least 12 fires have lev­eled six build­ings, prompt­ing the Hei­del­berg Project to install secu­ri­ty cameras.

As the Hei­del­berg Project has changed, so has Detroit. Bol­stered by bil­lion­aire Dan Gilbert’s invest­ments in the down­town core in recent years, the sto­ry of Detroit has shift­ed from Rust Belt ruin to come­back city — a feel-good nar­ra­tive upon which gen­tri­fiers capitalize.

In a strik­ing illus­tra­tion of the chang­ing times, Shi­no­la, a lux­u­ry watch mak­er, will soon install one of its street clocks (both time­keep­ers and adver­tise­ments) — a more com­mon sight in Detroit’s afflu­ent neigh­bor­hoods — near the Hei­del­berg Project in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Guy­ton (who will funk it up,” accord­ing to Whitfield).

And Guy­ton, once labeled a van­dal, is now fea­tured among the Detroit Insti­tute of Art’s per­ma­nent col­lec­tion. Last year, he was cho­sen to rep­re­sent the Unit­ed States at China’s Shen­zhen Bien­nale of Archi­tec­ture and Urban­ism, con­struct­ing, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Chi­nese stu­dents, a Hei­del­bergesque instal­la­tion called Pow­er to the Peo­ple.” This year, he exhib­it­ed a solo show called Face-olo­gy at Detroit’s trendy Inner State Gallery, where some of his paint­ings fetched over $5,000.

What exact­ly all this means for the future of the Hei­del­berg Project is unclear. Short­ly after the announce­ment of Hei­del­berg 3.0, Guy­ton could be seen pac­ing the grounds, inter­mit­tent­ly apply­ing coats of sky-blue paint to a pan­el while chat­ting with vis­i­tors. When asked about his deci­sion to dis­man­tle it, his response was coy.

Time just came,” he says. It’s like your body. When you have some­thing wrong with your body, it’ll tell you.”
Ley­land Lee” DeVi­to is a writer, illus­tra­tor, and design­er. His writ­ing has been pub­lished in Hour Detroit, Detroit Metro Times, Vice, New City, Cleve­land Scene, and Orlan­do Week­ly.
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