No trip to Detroit is complete without a visit to the Heidelberg Project by artist Tyree Guyton. Part public art, part DIY urban planning, the 24-year old, constantly evolving installation on the East side is one of Detroit’s top tourist destinations.
The installation has been alternately celebrated and vilified by the city. Twice, parts of it were razed. The second time, in 1999, I was studying in the area and saw how quickly [and angrily] Guyton worked to rebuild what had been destroyed. Over the past 12 years, I’ve probably visited at least a dozen times.
At its core, the Heidelberg Project involves lots of paint and the careful organization of trash — stuffed animals here, tires there. The houses and abandoned plots of lands on and around Heidelberg St. have thus been transformed into art environments by Guyton and neighborhood children. There are certain themes that have remained constant — the bright polka dots, faces, crosses, and the word “God.” On this visit, the taxis and the references to health care were new.
Guyton’s version of Noah’s ark:
Why is this important? To me, the Heidelberg Project is a grassroots attempt at community empowerment. It’s not just art, but also a kind of bottom-up urban planning. With very simple techniques and materials, Guyton has developed a distinct visual vocabulary that’s effective across different applications. What could be a simpler signifier than a polka dot? Anybody can paint that. What could be more efficient art fodder than easily available rubbish, cataloged and displayed by type?
More significantly, Guyton has managed to transform his neighborhood and draw positive attention to what would otherwise be a blighted area. His work proves that you don’t have to have deep pockets to make an impact.