Nestled between forlorn, vacant apartment complexes and rundown playgrounds on the axis of Detroit’s east side are piles of charred, dirty stuffed animals, scrap metal and gutted technology spanning two blocks. At a distance, this might seem like another manifestation of urban blight the city is often chastised for; but this particular collection of trash is credited with drastically reducing criminal activity in the neighborhood.
The Heidelberg Project was named after Heidelberg Street, which was the center of the Detroit race riots throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s. Tyree Guyton, a Detroit native, started the project with his grandfather in 1986 during a time when the community was overrun with crime and infrastructure was crumbling. The street became a mecca for drug dealers and prostitution rings, being so far removed from the rest of the city. In response, Guyton and his grandfather collected garbage lining the streets and pinned them to houses. They put doll heads on toy trucks, clocks in ovens and called it art. The result was bizarre and nihilistic, a perfect representation of the city of Detroit during this time.
Guyton’s work garnered immediate attention, some of which was negative. He has faced opposition from both the city and criminals. The project is a continuous target of arson with more than two dozen serious unsolved cases since 2013. His post-apocalyptic debris sculptures were recently bulldozed as fire hazards. Two years ago, more than six houses were destroyed by unknown circumstances, costing organizers more than $250,000 to ramp up security measures. Because much of the art centers on themes of ruin, acts of arson sometimes even complements the pieces. Despite this, the community continues to see these acts of destruction as an excuse to make new art, and increased media attention has garnered public support.
“I’m going to kick their ass with love,” Guyton recently said about the arsonists. “I just want to send out love.”
The project attracts hundreds of volunteers, artists and local activists, and remains a symbol of the city’s strength and innovation.
Today, anyone is free to wander the ever-growing Heidelberg Project. The eerie, quiet timbre gives visitors the opportunity to immerse themselves in the city’s culture uninterrupted.
The vintage red scare propaganda fixed on front lawns piques curiosity from even antique collectors. Guyton’s signature pastel polka-dots cover the street’s homes, although not all residents participate. Alma Brown has lived a block from Heidelberg Street for ten years and, although she appreciates the publicity that forced out organized crime, she doesn’t fancy herself an advocate.
“I’ve seen this project grow so much, but the problem with fame is it’s almost as bad as anonymity in this city,” she says. “I do know the project has reduced crime in the area, and I think using art as a means of cleaning up the city is an excellent solution.”
The project’s volunteers see it as a lesson in certitude and grassroots activism.
“I look at it as a tide. It ebbs and flows,” Trey Leggs, a local artist and volunteer, says. “The gangs tear down, we rebuild. They’re almost doing us a favor because every time they burn down a house, we’re in the news, which keeps us relevant. We’re not your classic art gallery, we’re a collective with purpose.”
The Heidelberg Project is a free, self-guided outdoor exhibit suitable for art enthusiasts, visitors interested in the authentic Detroit experience and bored suburban Banksy fans.