the heidelberg project: detroit’s ghetto guggenheim


imageDriving through one of Detroit’s most deteriorated neighborhoods, one comes upon Heidelberg Street, and a controversial artistic enclave known as “The Heidelberg Project,” sometimes referred to as Detroit’s “Ghetto Guggenheim.” The Heidelberg Project was created in 1986 by artist Tyree Guyton and his grandfather Sam [Grandpa Sam] as an experimental outdoor art installation in the McDougall-Hunt neighborhood on Detroit’s east side, north of the city’s historically African-American “Black Bottom” neighborhood. The Heidelberg Project is in part a political protest, as Tyree Guyton’s childhood neighborhood began to deteriorate after the 1967 riots, occurring when the artist was only 12 years old.

imageFor historical context, The 1967 Detroit riots began on a Saturday night in the early morning hours of July 23rd. The catalyst was a police raid of an unlicensed, after-hours bar. Police confrontations with patrons and observers on the street evolved into one of the deadliest and most destructive riots in the history of the United States, lasting five days and resulting in 43 dead, 1,189 injured, over 7,200 arrests, and more than two thousand buildings destroyed. The scale of the riot was surpassed in the United States only by the 1863 New York City draft riots during the U.S. Civil War and the 1992 Los Angeles riots. To help end the disturbance, Governor George W. Romney ordered the Michigan Army National Guard into Detroit, and President Lyndon B. Johnson sent in both the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. Artist Guyton described Heidelberg Street and the surrounding neighborhood as looking as if “a bomb went off.”

imageAt first, the project consisted of his painting a series of houses on Heidelberg Street with bright dots of many colors and attaching salvaged items to the houses. It was a constantly evolving work that transformed a decayed inner city neighborhood where people were afraid to walk into one in which neighbors took pride and where visitors were welcomed. Guyton worked on the Heidelberg Project with local children. He and director Jenenne Whitfield gave lectures and workshops on the project around the country. Their main goal was to develop the Heidelberg Project into the city’s first indoor and outdoor museum, complete with an artists’ colony, creative art center, community garden, amphitheater, and more.

However, not everyone supported this vision. On two occasions, the Heidelberg Project faced complete destruction by the City of Detroit on the basis of perceived barriers to urban planning it represented. In 1991, under Mayor Coleman Young, the Heidelberg Project’s “The Baby Doll House,” “Fun House” and “Truck Stop” were completely demolished. Under Mayor Dennis Archer, a second demolition of the Heidelberg Project was ordered in 1999 that ended in the destruction of the houses Guyton termed “Your World”, “Happy Feet” and “The Canfield House.”.

Fortunately there is still much to see, and the project is growing. Today, the Heidelberg Project is Detroit’s third most visited cultural site, visited by over 275,000 people annually and has gained acclaim from the National Endowment for the Arts. It’s current mission is “to improve the lives of people and neighborhoods through art.. to inspire people to appreciate and use artistic expression to enrich their lives and to improve the social and economic health of their greater community.”

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