The Heidelberg Project
Art made of junk -- the soul of The Heidelberg Project -- is nothing new. What makes Heidelberg different is its location: a blighted residential neighborhood in a battered American city. Once it was a suburb, then it was hell, now it's art.
The Heidelberg Project gets its name from Heidelberg Street, which serves as its axis between Ellory and Mt Elliott on Detroit's east side. A 31-year old former auto worker and firefighter -- Tyree Guyton -- lived on this block in 1986 when he decided to take the ruin around him -- junked cars, abandoned homes, vacant lot trash -- and turn it into art. It started as a project with his grandfather, and continued for decades.
Tyree faced opposition from the city, and from some of his neighbors. Several of his art houses were torn down, and his creative debris-sculptures were bulldozed as fire hazards or rat nests. In 2013 alone the Penny House, House of Soul, War Room, and Obstruction of Justice houses were destroyed in mysterious conflagrations. But the purges have left the street surprisingly parklike, with open space to build more art.
Driving to The Heidelberg Project takes you though post-apocalyptic urban landscapes. But once you arrive it's like a sleepy, crazy Eden, with spray-painted sidewalks and dead trees festooned with shopping carts. Parking is easy; not many people live here any more, and you're free to wander up and down Heidelberg just like in any fancy art museum.
Tyree's colorful polka-dots -- his creative signature -- brighten one of the houses, but innocent whimsy is mostly absent at Heidelberg. There's nothing cheerful about a plastic baby nailed to a tombstone, or a placard that shouts, "Do not believe the lie; no amount of radiation is safe!" Tyree seems especially incensed by war, the tobacco industry, and Santa ("God is not Santa Claus!").
Grassy lots that were once homes are now open-air galleries for paintings on old car hoods and piles of art-junk: peeling wooden doors, rusting oil drums, gutted TV sets. Stuffed animals are wired to power poles, crucified on the sides of houses, or heaped into mounds, half-mulched by Detroit's long winters.
One abandoned house has been covered with painted clock faces; another is encased in industrial tubing. A colony of black squirrels scurries about, looking for food dropped by snacking art-gawkers.
Despite its rough-hewn appearance, Heidelberg has advanced beyond the days when it was just Tyree with a bucket of paint and a nail gun. It's a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with a support staff, and ties to places like Harvard University and Mercedes-Benz Financial Services. You can buy your own Tyree-style wool hat, or a copy of his children's book, "Magic Trash." MTV and fashion photographers have embraced Heidelberg, which, according to its brochure, is now the third most visited tourist sight in Detroit.
Heidelberg is best enjoyed in its quirky details, a good place for wandering with a camera, or imagining a universe where you could similarly transform your own neighborhood. Who's trimming the weeds? Where do all the stuffed toys come from?
Most of the Heidelberg Project, thankfully, is still left to the visitor's interpretation. We'd hoped to see Tyree when we visited, maybe nail-gunning babies to a wall, but were told that he was off on a year-long residency in Switzerland.
Nov. 2013: Three of the Heidelberg Project houses have been destroyed by fires this year, likely the work of arsonist who is torching the abandoned buildings at night. The House of Soul (covered with vinyl records) and the Penny House burned to the ground. The "Obstruction of Justice" (a.k.a. "O.J. House") was torched twice.