On Heidelberg Street, there exists an oasis. Wedged in between lines of relatively empty streets, a wild conglomeration of discarded objects and colorful houses lies sprawled over beaten grass. Every turn leads to somewhere new: The tucked-away basement of an abandoned house hides a sea of cast-off blue shoes; a series of wood clocks frames the path to a vast sign proclaiming: “Art is in the Eye of the Beholder.”
The Heidelberg Project isn’t pretty. Its many different pieces aren’t sculpted with neat elegance. Instead, its weathered edges gleam with chipped paint and authenticity. More than refinement, the spectacle of the Heidelberg Project is contained within its history. Every recycled object, every broken toy holds a story.
“Let me share a little something with you,” said executive director Jenenne Whitfield warmly as she began to introduce the Heidelberg Project. Whitfield explained its purpose with a bright passion that mimicked the animation of the street itself.
“We describe Heidelberg as a funky, outdoor art environment,” she said. “It’s been described as a ghetto Guggenheim. It’s been described as a playground for the imagination.”
And a playground it is, indeed. With houses like the vibrant Polka Dot House (officially titled the “New White House”) standing near structures made of scratched records and broken highway signs, it’s a space where boundaries don’t exist.
“It’s been many things to many people throughout its 30-year history,” Whitfield said.
The Heidelberg Project means something different to every person who has viewed it. But the people who matter the most, the people who have been affected the most, are those surrounding Heidelberg — the Detroit community.
“Many of the people that visit Heidelberg talk about looking at what Tyree has done and thinking: ‘My God, if this man can do this, what can I do?’ ” Whitfield said.
More than just a street, more than just an outlandish project, Heidelberg is an inspiration; its effect on the surrounding residents is distinctive from the experiences of those who drive in for a day solely to view the street’s infamous chaos.
“People in the community who have grown up with Heidelberg have now this creative energy to do other things,” Whitfield said.
When seeing the wonder of Heidelberg, there is oftentimes a motivation to innovate. Whitfield detailed the example of Phillip Cooley, co-owner of Slows Bar BQ in Detroit — a restaurant Cooley built with the help of friends, reusing old pieces in order to build a now-thriving small business. Cooley was encouraged by the Heidelberg Project, the way it works from within the community in order to improve the community, and moved to Detroit in order to open a restaurant that operates under the same notion.
“How many more people have been inspired by going and seeing and experiencing Heidelberg to go and create something else?” Whitfield mused.
The reason the Heidelberg Project is so influential is that it’s so genuine: both in its appearance, the way timeworn components are never altered into their more artificially pristine versions, and in its origin.
“When Tyree was six or seven, his great-grandmother … told him that he was going to be a very famous, great man,” Whitfield said.
Tyree Guyton and his grandfather, Sam Mackey, created the Heidelberg Project in 1986. Initially, it was started only because of a desire to clean up the neighborhood. After the Detroit riots of the late ’60s decimated the area he grew up in, Guyton attempted to rebuild: Painting bright colors on the sides of houses and affixing them with recovered materials.
“(Guyton) talked about being a child at 12 and witnessing the riots and feeling like the world was coming to an end,” Whitfield said. “So that really became the drive in him.”
What is most vital about Heidelberg is that it was a solution that came from within the community, from someone who had been directly shaped by difficulties that had existed in the Heidelberg area. Guyton built the Heidelberg Project for no reason other than to help the neighborhood he grew up in. The selfless desire that was infused into every aspect of the project allowed it to evolve into the inclusive installation that it is today: a work of art that welcomes visitors but first and foremost is for the surrounding community. It’s a space for invention and innovation, hosting venues for neighborhood youth workshops and art exhibitions for new artists.
When people outside of Detroit talk about the city’s success, they can only look at the big picture: new stadiums built or flashy businesses constructed — projects that are tailored to those living outside the scope of the city (and predominantly with a higher socioeconomic status). So caught up in the glamour of the prospect of a “new and improved” Detroit, many rarely notice the repercussions of these large-scale developments on the people actually living within the community; the pillars that Detroit rests on. The large corporations flocking to midtown or downtown Detroit oftentimes push into the community at the expense of residents who have inhabited the same area for generations: Home prices increase, people are shoved out and many families are forced to relocate.
While these new businesses have the power to garner widespread attention for Detroit, there is a danger in thinking of Detroit as a city that needs to be fixed.
“(Detroit) is not coming back because it never went anywhere,” Whitfield said, “What I find just fascinating is that people are attracted to the kind of work that we do and want to be near us. But then they bring, with them, their resources, and that squeezes us out. Then they’ll get bored with this area, and they’ll go look for the next area.”
Detroit has a tireless energy. Its tenacity to keep persevering was perhaps born out of its tumultuous history. In the early to mid-1900s, the Great Migration initiated a large population of African-Americans to move to Detroit from the southern United States. Faced with problems that stemmed from the city’s lack of housing combined with harsh discrimination and subsequent segregation, new African-American residents struggled to find a place in a city that strove to drive them out. Detroit is a city whose past has been largely shaped by the tension and conflict born out of exclusion and ignorance.
Still, no matter how many times Detroit appeared to crack with the tension fabricated by segregation and prejudice, it always found a way to keep moving forward.
The spirit of Detroit that current prospective businesses are attracted to lies in this: the determination and drive manifesting from a history of hardship. However, the reason so much of this new development occurs at the detriment of Detroit’s established community, with gentrification becoming increasingly prevalent in recent years, is because contenders who view the city as outsiders don’t see that the main force behind Detroit’s continuous persistence has been its people.
The energy of Detroit has always been contained within its inhabitants. Businesses that enter the city but do not recognize the significance of Detroit’s intrinsic communities can cause a disconnect: the city outwardly projecting strong economic advancements that a majority of its inhabitants do not have access to.
The increasing exclusion of the people of Detroit is why projects like Heidelberg are so imperative, now more than ever.
“(Heidelberg) has become a representation of everything that Detroit is … it represents the whole up-from-the-ashes concept,” Whitfield said. “The fear that I think a lot of people have about what is happening in Detroit and how people are being left out and not considered. Well, we say power to the people.”
The beauty of the Heidelberg Project does not come from its physical arrangement of objects, but rather from the fact that it is an establishment of the people and for the people. It works directly with surrounding communities in order to form an all-encompassing platform that encourages imagination on a personal level. It has the potential to lead to citywide economic and infrastructure developments that benefit the entirety of Detroit’s population, not just a small percentage.
Most crucial of all, the Heidelberg Project does not shut individuals out.
Even Whitfield herself has experienced gentrification at its finest, with her and her family currently in the middle of the process of leaving a place that they had moved into not even a decade earlier.
“We’re moving from the midtown area, which is now being celebrated as one of the comeback areas of Detroit, along with downtown,” Whitfield said. “Our hope, when we moved here eight years ago, was that we would buy this place. But, in the last three years, it doubled and that priced us out.”
However, Whitfield did not let these setbacks deter her from looking toward the unknown with resolve and fortitude.
“My attitude has to be: A place does not make me, I make a place,” Whitfield said. “So I’ll go somewhere else, and I’ll energize that new space.”
It is her steadfast optimism that ensures the future of the Heidelberg Project, especially considering Guyton is stepping down and promoting Whitfield to oversee the next saga of the Heidelberg: Heidelberg 3.0.
She described Heidelberg 3.0 as, “an arts organization that is offering and opening its doors to young people and artists all over the world.”
It’s an exciting prospect that builds off the original Heidelberg Project in order to expand its message. Heidelberg 3.0 hopes to include more young artists by giving them a space to explore their ideas, going even further to immerse art within communities of people.
The future of Detroit is in projects like Heidelberg; in the way it serves to both heal and elevate the surrounding communities; in the way it inspires creativity; and, most importantly, in the way it continuously, simply, strives to represent the people.