CULTURE & ARTS

After 30 Years, Detroit's Beloved Heidelberg Project Will Be Dismantled

The decision will make room for a larger-scale "arts-infused community" called Heidelberg 3.0.

After 30 years of invigorating and inspiring residents of Detroit, Michigan ― and countless others around the world ― the beloved Heidelberg Project will be dismantled over the course of the next two years.

Tyree Guyton, the man behind the iconic outdoor art space, has big plans for the future, though. According to Detroit Free Press, Guyton will transform the installation into a larger scale “arts-infused community.” It will be called Heidelberg 3.0. 

In 1986, artist Guyton, along with his grandfather Sam Mackey, began to transform the abandoned homes and urban detritus in their east side Detroit neighborhood into a living work of art. In the 20 years prior, their hometown and community had suffered a notable population loss; a neighborhood once defined by thriving black businesses was soon distinguished by its abandoned storefronts. 

Guyton and his Grandpa Sam turned the wreckage into a site of creative exploration and rebirth. They painted empty houses with bright colors and polka dots, assembled items left behind on streets and in parking lots into dizzying installations of stuffed animals, toy cars, clocks, dolls, television sets, records, shoes, and signs. Houses on the block include “The Doll House,” “The Party Animal House,” “The House of Soul,” and “The Obstruction of Justice House.” 

Guyton worked on the project daily with children from the neighborhood, and before long visitors were coming in throngs to visit the whimsical and radical repurposing of space. Heidelberg Street went from a dilapidated region to an arts destination, a point of pride for the entire community. 

Over the years, the Heidelberg Project has faced more than its fair share of hurdles. In 1991 and again in 1999, city officials demolished certain Heidelberg houses, claiming they interfered with urban planning initiatives. In 2013 and 2014, the houses endured a string of fires, some of which left entire buildings burned to the ground. The fires are believed to be the result of arson, though no arrests have ever been made. 

The upcoming dismantling, however, appears to be a positive change, made with Guyton’s consent and excitement. “After 30 years, I’ve decided to take it apart piece-by-piece in a very methodical way, creating new realities as it comes apart,” Guyton told Detroit Free Press. “I gotta go in a new direction. I gotta do something I have not done before.”

”I’m on an elevator, and I’ve taken it from the ground floor up to the very top 30 years later,” Guyton continued. “Now I’m reversing that process, and I’m going to take this elevator down. I’m gonna stop on every floor to look around and see the beauty of taking it apart, and do it in a methodical way, where it becomes a new form of art.”

Over the next two years, the potpourri of objects jammed in the empty lots between Heidelberg houses are expected to be gone. Some of these objects will be donated to museums including the Smithsonian in D.C. and the High Museum in Atlanta, while others will be sold to fund new ventures. The four surviving houses themselves, however, will remain. There are also plans to turn the “Dotty Wotty House” into a museum memorializing the project. 

Jenenne Whitfield, executive director of the Heidelberg Project, as well as Guyton’s wife, is leading the venture to launch a million-dollar fundraising campaign to secure the future of the iconic public artwork and begin its shift into a larger cultural community. The campaign will also provide a retirement fund for Guyton, who has received little compensation for his work over the past 30 years.

Although not much else is known regarding the future of the Heidelberg Project, it seems its dismantling is at once an end and a beginning. Just as the degeneration of a Detroit neighborhood paved the way for an unexpected artistic masterpiece, the disassembly of the Heidelberg Project will make room for new and transformative creative efforts. 

Stay tuned for more details as the transition progresses. In the meantime, check out Guyton’s paintings, currently on view at Detroit’s Inner State Gallery

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