Rescuing Home: Detroit’s Heidelberg Project

How do we respond to poverty, drugs and crime? Tyree Guyton strengthened the spirit of his Detroit neighborhood through art.

Penny Car © David Yarnall with CCLicense
Penny Car, Heidelberg Project
© David Yarnall with CCLicense

In 1986, Tyree Guyton returned from serving in the U.S. Army to his home on Heidelberg Street in East Detroit. The McDougall-Hunt neighborhood had become an unfriendly place, sinking deeper and deeper into drugs and crime. Guyton had lost three brothers to violence on the streets and his grandfather, Sam Mackey, encouraged him to take a different path. There was no money to rebuild the houses that were falling apart on the street, but Grandpa Sam helped Tyree made sculptures, paintings and installations that reimagined those houses as art, reclaiming them from dissolution and destruction. Neighborhood children joined the project and it began to spread like a wildfire. Maybe they couldn’t make their neighborhood pristine, but they could show that people who don’t have money can still dream and be creative. Guyton never imagined how much his efforts would inspire and change his community and the world.

Video via HeidelbergProject on YouTube.

The woman who drove up to Guyton to demand what was going on, Jenenne Whitfield, became his wife. We can certainly appreciate how she was drawn into this fascinating world. The Heidelberg Project has transformed the neighborhood from a violent place where people feared going outside, even in the daytime, to a proud and quirky attraction that draws visitors from all over the world. In twenty-seven years, it has won several awards and represented the US at the Venice Architecture Biennale. Despite its therapeutic effect on the community and the attention of “shrinking cities” all over the globe, not everyone is a fan of the project. Part political protest, celebration of life and experimental art installation, it has always been at the crossroads of frustration and inspiration. Some feel that isn’t art, but trash, while others see it as standing in the way of urban renewal.

© Michigan Municipal League with CCLicense
© Michigan Municipal League with CCLicense

The Heidelberg Project was almost destroyed in the name of progress twice by the City of Detroit during the 1990s. Last year a series of fires, which proved to be arson and remain unsolved, took down several houses, shaking the safety of the Heidelberg Project and striking at the heart of the community. Fortunately, Guyton sees adversity as proof that the art is working and is far from giving up. We wish him all the best and encourage people to follow his bold example.

© Michigan Municipal League with CCLicense
© Michigan Municipal League with CCLicense
"Party Animal House" © Bob Jagendorf with CCLicense
“Party Animal House”
© Bob Jagendorf in accordance with Fair Use Policy
© Nic Redhead with CCLicense
© Nic Redhead with CCLicense
"Number House" © Nic Redhead with CCLicense
“Number House”
© Nic Redhead with CCLicense

3 thoughts on “Rescuing Home: Detroit’s Heidelberg Project

  1. Pingback: Protest or urban decay? | DesignHaj

    • katmcdaniel Reply

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  2. Pingback: A Synkroniciti Top Ten: Most Popular Videos of 2014 | synkroniciti

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