Instant Detroit – The Heidelberg Project Edition
Remember when I started a blog series called Instant Detroit back in January of 2013 and then never wrote another post in that series until now? Me neither.
I’m a terrible blogger. Anyway, post number two, COMIN’ ATCHA.
I’ve been a longtime supporter of The Heidelberg Project, an outdoor art installation located in a residential community on Detroit’s east side. Tyree Guyton, founder and artistic director, started the project in the 1980’s as a creative response to the poverty, decay, and crime that had taken over his childhood neighborhood. He, along with the help of family and neighbors, boarded up abandoned houses, mowed the overgrown lawns, and cleared out the trash. They gathered up discarded tires, shoes, dolls, and other everyday objects and nailed them to the houses. They painted the concrete with colorful polka dots and turned a two block area into a living art gallery. Tyree didn’t attempt to cover up the truth of the neighborhood, nay, he amplified it, calling attention to the desperate area by turning it into a tourist attraction. And it worked. Over 275,000 people visit The Heidelberg Project annually. A bevy of celebrities have publicly discussed their visits to The Heidelberg Project as well, including Anthony Bourdain, Kate Moss, Beyonce, Bruce Weber, and Ryan Gosling to name a few.
Of course, there’s the never ending debate – is it art or is it junk? Many people say The Heidelberg Project wouldn’t last a second in the suburbs, and that’s true. But the suburbs don’t need a Heidelberg Project, and that is Tyree’s point. After the riots in the late 1960’s, thousands of businesses and residents fled the city for the suburbs. The tax loss led to cutbacks and non-repair of basic services. It became clear to the remaining residents of Heidelberg Street that they had been forgotten, and help was not coming. This is a situation (somewhat) familiar to me. Back in the late 70’s and early 80’s, my family lived near the Michigan State Fairgrounds, a similarly blighted section of Detroit. We watched our neighborhood fall to ruin as our previous neighbors’ homes turned into crack houses. Our house had been burglarized and all our windows shot out, twice. I was robbed before I was even three years old. My parents never once called the police, for a simple reason – they wouldn’t come. It’s a terrifying feeling that many of us living in the suburbs will never experience, and thankfully, we got out while I was quite young. To the cynics who pose the question – Would YOU have wanted to live next to The Heidelberg Project? I answer that question with an emphatic YES. With its constant flow of tourists, neighbors, and volunteers welcoming visitors and maintaining the grounds, Heidelberg Street is the safest street on the block.
Tyree created an eccentric dreamworld, that despite it’s controversy, shifted the way people interact with this neighborhood. He collected the trash and created a visually assaulting work of art, that, just like the neighborhood itself, isn’t always pretty to look at. But people are coming. In droves. People who would be too scared to visit this area otherwise. The Heidelberg Project reminds us that this neighborhood, and the people who inhabit it, are still alive, and they need our help. It’s rumored that the national attention drawn to the neighborhoods surrounding The Heidelberg Project and the recently shuttered Theatre Bizarre grounds aided in calling the city into action. Detroit’s emergency manager recently proposed to spend half a billion dollars to demolish 400-500 abandoned and unsafe residential structures per week. As Detroit begins its revitalization efforts, many fear that the end is nigh for The Heidelberg Project. But isn’t that the whole point?
Despite its adversity, despite its dissidence, The Heidelberg Project is a part of Detroit’s history and this cake still isn’t done. I imagine there will be a day when the street lights come on at dusk, and the kids are safe to play. Maybe the windows are no longer barred and the eight foot chain-link fences are gone. I like to imagine that a few polka dots remain, too.
It’s a real nice dream.
The above images were shot with black and white instant film in my old Polaroid Land Camera back in October.
PS: The Heidelberg Project recently selected 34 Instagram photos from the hashtag #snaphp to be displayed in the Number House Gallery. Three of my photos are on display and available to purchase for $10 each until the end of October. 100% of the sales are donated to The Heidelberg Project. The Number House Gallery and gift shop is open on Thursdays from 11am to 5pm and Friday through Sunday from 12pm to 6pm.
August 6, 2014
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