Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
"We can't just let the destruction of a building stop the efforts that we have been making."
If you’ve visited Detroit any time over the last 20 or so years, you may have made a trip to see the Heidelberg Project, an “outdoor community art environment” that has become one of the city’s premier cultural attractions since it began in 1986.
Created by Detroit native Tyree Guyton in response to the urban blight that overcame his East Side neighborhood in the era following the 1967 riots, the Heidelberg Project converted abandoned homes and surrounding vacant lots in a two-block area into artworks using nothing more than found objects and paint. The result has been one of the city’s most enduring examples of public art and community-driven regeneration.
While it has been hailed internationally as a powerful example of street art, not everyone has loved the Heidelberg Project. Over the years, neighbors have complained about the traffic and tourists the installation bought to Heidelberg Street. The project has also been accused of being a health hazard and ridiculed as nothing more than piles of junk. In both 1991 and 1999, Detroit city officials demolished much of it in the name of blight clearance and a new beginning for the city.
But Guyton and his many supporters have always rebuilt, and the Heidelberg Project has remained a central symbol of the city’s indefatigable creativity and ingenuity. It continues to attract acclaim and visitors from around the world who see a deeper purpose in its playful assemblages of cast-off items—the reflection of a city that has itself been consigned to the trash heap of history more than once.
On May 3 of this year, a new threat to the project emerged when an apparent arson attack burned the Obstruction of Justice House, one of Heidelberg’s central buildings. Over the next six months, more iconic structures along the two-block strip were set ablaze in six separate incidents, the most recent on November 21. The House of Soul (which was covered in old vinyl records) and the Penny House were destroyed just last week.
News reports indicate that a “person of interest” was taken into custody after the last incident, but the Heidelberg Project’s executive director, Jenenne Whitfield, says that she can’t confirm the status of the investigation.
What Whitfield did say is that the arsons have exposed deeper problems in a neighborhood that continues to be plagued by the drug trade, where streets are “engulfed in darkness” due to a lack of functioning streetlights and emergency services may never show up. “I think that what we’re really seeing is the breakdown of our municipality,” she says. “Our work is bringing this larger issue to light.”
Whitfield says that the Heidelberg Project, where she has worked for 20 years, has always been about much more than the structures. She calls it “creative placemaking,” or “art as social practice”—a way, she says, to illuminate the injustices of modern cities and societies. “Our work reaches way beyond just this city or just this country as people begin to deal with the fallout of this automobile industry and this post-industrial economy,” says Whitfield. “The concept and the idea is that we really have to be able to rebuild the human spirit. We have to become thinkers again.”
Since the fires began, says Whitfield, there has been an outpouring of support from around the world, and the number of people coming to visit has tripled. The organization has mounted a campaign on Indiegogo to fund a nightly patrol force and solar-powered streetlights for the area with surveillance cameras within the light poles. Whitfield says that she hopes after the surrounding community sees the benefit of the lighting infrastructure, the initiative will be taken up by other anchor institutions in the surrounding neighborhoods.
There are only 12 buildings left on the two blocks where the Heidelberg Project operates, where not long ago there were 14, and where longer ago as many as 40 homes were proudly occupied. But Whitfield says she and the rest of the project’s staff and volunteers remain committed. “We can’t just let the destruction of a building stop the efforts that we have been making,” she says.
After the first fire in May, Guyton spoke on video to the Detroit Free Press. “Where there’s negative there’s positive,” Guyton said then. “This is not the first time I’ve been faced with ups and downs. The best is yet to come. This is nothing. … This is the real world, this is life. It’s what you do from this, afterwards, that’s important. I’m ready to pick up the pieces and carry on. We can’t stop because of this here.”