DETROIT — Driving through Detroit, the remnants of a once-thriving metropolis surround you. The 127-square mile city houses an estimated 70,000 abandoned buildings.. Many of the neighborhoods boast at least one of these empty dwellings which can make convenient sanctuaries for criminals in a city struggling with some of the nation’s worst crime rates.
It comes as little surprise, then, that the go-to media representation of the Motor City’s decline has become “ruin porn”: stark photos of half-burnt, empty buildings situated in deserted lots grace the pages of publications across the globe, where journalists and critics bemoan the state of the city, but do little to actually improve it.
But this attitude often fails to portray the other side of Detroit, the side with a tight-knit community working together to create lasting change. And while an emerging art scene promises to breath new life into the city, it’s another, older art project that has made a positive impact throughout the city and its community for almost three decades.
The Heidelberg Project is an art initiative on the east side of the city started by Detroit artist and resident Tyree Guyton. In 1986, Guyton reclaimed his childhood neighborhood, transforming vacant lots into what is now considered world-renowned, outdoor art installations. Founded with the belief that the community has the right to grow and flourish, the Project has turned two run-down blocks in the heart of Detroit into an oasis of art.
The installation boasts a polka-dotted house, stuffed animal-covered boat and various other “discarded object” installations. It’s because of these colorful, uniquely Heidelberg scenes that visitors — roughly 275,000 each year — flock to the city from across the world.
However, it’s not just the reclamation of the potentially destructive abandoned buildings that has earned the Heidelberg Project its sterling reputation. In addition to installing art, the Project hosts education programs for school children as well as the Emerging Artist Program, which showcases the artwork of an artist who has yet to present in a formal gallery.
Amanda Sansoterra, the executive director of the Emerging Artist Program, said the Project not only provides an outlet for emerging artists and programs for Detroit’s youth, but is also an indisputable economic asset to the city. While the Project itself doesn’t generate money, visitors to the installations patron local restaurants and other business, sending money back into the community.
It is this help to the city that really solidifies why the Project was created.
“We have a huge economic impact on the city of Detroit,” Sansoterra said. “$1.3 million on a yearly basis … and that’s awesome; we just couldn’t have asked for anything better.”
University alum Phillip Simpson, a graduate of the School of Art & Design, has volunteered at the Project for five years. Now an employee, he said though he grew up in Detroit and had a vague idea Heidelberg existed, it wasn’t until he began volunteering there that he realized the positive impact it had on the community.
“Actually getting a chance to know what the Project means to Detroit and to the people was a wake-up call for me,” Simpson said.
In his five years, he has had the opportunity to really connect with community members and get their take on the art. He said the community has taken especially well to the visitors who travel to the Project from across the globe.
“They meet all these people from around the world they never would have met any way outside of this art,” he said. “It’s not only brought a change in the art community, it’s brought a change to their homes as well.”
The Project’s impact reaches farther than the locals who see it everyday, according to Simpson. He said though many people just pass through, there are certain visitors that the art really speaks to.
“Every now and then you get that couple or that family who just want to engage a conversation about art and about Detroit, and, you know, I’m so happy to be here, at this moment,” he said. “I’ve seen it put some smiles on faces.”
He cited one defining moment in his time at the Project. After months of researching the, a family from the East Coast made its way to Heidelberg during a brief stop on a road trip. Simpson said the way the family reacted to the Project is one of his favorite memories from his time involved with the installation.
“Not knowing what to expect, they just fell in love,” Simpson said. “They painted a polka dot and they took a picture by it, and I just knew that they would never forget that moment.”
While the Heidelberg Project has been expanding in recent years, times haven’t always been as sunny. Twice the city has demolished parts of the Project, but the art has always found its way back, a fact Sansoterra said cannot be overlooked.
“You have people who still look at it as an eyesore, that it is junk,” Sansoterra said. “But those are the people who don’t understand what ‘found object’ art is, or ‘discarded object’ art. It’s become a project that is respected, and so you’re obviously going to have people who challenge the ideology behind it, that challenge the aesthetic of it — that’s still there. And we welcome it.”
And though “ruin porn” and the city’s decline may dominate the national conversation about Detroit for now, the Heidelberg Project offers hope that, at least little by little — or in this case, block by block — the city can make a comeback.
“Obviously we hear all these things about how dangerous it still is,” she said. “(But) it is a changing city — there are still great things going on.”