One of Detroit’s best known and most controversial public art installations, The Heidelberg Project has been making mainstream news again over the last few months, and has stirred many memories and thoughts of underground art and culture in my mind. Many see Heidelberg as odd, tacky, or even outlandish, but for me, it has always been a reminder of the unique and ever evolving spirit of creativity in Americas largest and most complex ghost town, Detroit.
For those who have never heard and of The Heidelberg Project, it is a quasi-public art installation and display smack in the middle of one of the most impoverished and crime ridden cities in the United States. Detroit artist and native Tyree Guyton has taken abandoned homes in Detroit’s historic McDougall-Hunt neighborhood and applied paint and found objects/decorations to make part of the block an eye-catching, and often controversial, display of art that touches on subjects of urban decay, social injustice, class indifference, and the spirit of community, creativity and cooperation. Guyton has used the abandoned and neglected structures, as well as the surrounding lots as his canvas and has created one of the most photographed and storied art projects in Detroit history.
My first experience with the Heidelberg project takes me back to the days of being an idealistic young rave kid, when I was first experiencing the underground music and art of Detroit for the first time, somewhere in the late 90s. It was a hot, sweaty Michigan summer and I was rolling around the city with a friend who was just cutting her teeth at becoming a photographer. After exhausting several hours taking pictures of Detroit’s many monuments to abandonment and urban decay, she asked me if I had ever seen “those crazy houses with all the paint and decorations called Heidelberg”. We didn’t really know where we were going, and in the days before smart phones and GPS, and after an hour of wandering, we managed to find Heidelberg Street near the cities east side. I was immediately taken back by the size and the uniqueness of the art installation that was spread out before me. A house covered in multi colored dots popped out at me from one direction. A brightly painted cash register stood on a pedestal in another. Another house was festooned with salvaged materials and paintings of shoes. Every direction for the better part of a city block was covered in the most eye-catching and left field art I had ever seen. We spent the better part of the afternoon exploring and taking in the Heidelberg Project. I remember hearing the cicadas humming in the tree’s, the roar of nearby traffic, the tall grass of late summer and my first realization that great art can occur in any environment and medium. I left that day with an inspiration and a different view of underground creativity that is unique to a place as neglected and special as Detroit.
The Heidelberg project started in 1987 as a publicly visible political protest to the deterioration of the neighborhood by Guyton who grew up on Heidelberg Street and watched it slide into dilapidation. The project has been a subject of controversy over the years in the public forum. In 1991 and 1999, various Detroit political administrations had portions of the art project razed in the name of “urban planning” while abandoned factories occupied hundreds of acres of land only blocks away, and ultimately, the neighborhood remained the same. This past May, the infamous “Obstruction of Justice” house, part of the project, burned in mysterious circumstances. But still, the Heidelberg project marches on.
Within days of the recent fire, Tyree Guyton and group of volunteers tore down the burned shell of ”Obstruction of Justice”, cleaned up the now vacant lot, and is moving on, ever evolving and changing to adapt to the ever-changing Detroit environment. After 27 years, the Heidelberg project has grown to a full-blown idea, organization and front for creativity, art and community in the city.
For me, that embodies all forms of art in Detroit. Always striving to survive, always adapting, always staying unique and creative within its given medium. Art can always exist in the most unlikely of places, and that’s what makes it so inspirational and special.