Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Detroit's Heidelberg Project

Following up on my recent Michigan travels, I decided to focus on one of the area's most important social statements: The Heidelberg Project. HP is an outdoor art space in Detroit's McDougall-Hunt neighborhood where two blocks of blighted houses and empty lots have been transformed into colorful, disturbing, witty, and thought-provoking comments on the Motor City's state and fate. As you'd guess, Heidelberg is a street passing through the area, once a sign of dilapidation, now something far more lively.

Tyree Guyton launched the project in 1986 as a personal and politically charged response to the despair and decay of his neighborhood. No etherial artiste, Guyton took wreckage as his media, determined to draw attention to the forces of racial discrimination and economic depravation that helped wreck his hometown. Working with his grandfather, Sam Mackey, along with other local artists and neighborhood kids, Guyton painted polka dots, assembled discarded items, and composed jarring juxtapositions to challenge others to rethink the meaning of ruin.

Naysayers, including two mayors, have called for the HP's demolition, and a number of Heidelberg houses were razed in the nineties. Even so, the Project draws photographers, activists, and curious onlookers from around the world. Tell a few folks that you're visiting Detroit and at least one person will insist that you add HP to your itineracy. Indeed a few local boosters have even begun (nervously) to add this place to their lists of must-sees. Just imagine the sight of reclaimed houses - eyesores to critics - on those glossy four-color brochures selling Detroit as a tourism destination.

Artwork by Tim Burke
During my visit, on a blue-sky weekday, I saw an empty information booth and a handful of tourists taking pictures from their cars, windows up. I was compelled to get out and walk. I spotted a couple older guys sitting in a pickup and asked whether they thought it'd be OK for me to take some pictures. "Go ahead," one guy said. "But don't sell 'em," the other one added. Unsurprisingly several neighborhood signs warn that the entire place is copyrighted. Detroiters know a thing or two about exploitation.

Artwork by Tim Burke
Since visiting HP I have wanted to learn more about this experiment in urban renewal. The official website offers plenty of information about one of this project's goals: "The inclusion of vacant lands into a networked system of art/play/garden spaces and the adoption of an 'art-as-life' philosophy into all components of the neighborhood infrastructure" - a worthy enterprise, especially given the alternatives in this part of town.

In many ways, project founder Tyree Guyton is a symbol of Detroit. He served in the Army, he was an autoworker, and he was a firefighter. Now he's an artist, active as ever. In fact Guyton has just mounted a temporary show called Street Folk, an exhibit of about 10,000 shoes filling a city block, seeking to evoke the plight of Detroit's homeless population. For better or worse, the Motor City is increasingly a work of art.

Take a tour with Google Street View - and then visit for real.

(Photographs by Andrew Wood)

No comments: