The Heidelberg Project & the Resiliency of Detroit
I have never lived or worked full-time in Detroit, nor have I exceeded the span of a week while visiting the city. Yet, having grown up in Ohio just miles from the Michigan state line, I have an inherent bond with Detroit that has influenced my outlook, values, interests and what ultimately inspires me.
From a political position, the city justifiably gets an unfavorable rap for it’s deep-rooted inability to formally recognize, concoct or implement strategies to appease it’s fall into financial devastation.
From a historical perspective, Detroit’s cultural and societal influences constitute a level of importance that is as diverse, proud and creative as any city in the United States.
In recent years, Detroit has become known as a city prime for reinvention, a virtual clean slate for innovative municipal planning and grass roots urban experimentation. It’s 139-square-miles were determined generations ago to accommodate a booming population (Manhattan, San Francisco and Boston could fit inside Detroit with room to spare) and have since proven to be unsustainable for a municipality that has lost half of it’s population since 1950. Regardless, the city’s ever-increasing state of vacancy and it’s potential have enticed people to relocate or return to the city after spending time living outside of it’s limits. Innovative business owners, artists, educators, urban farmers and socially conscious entrepreneurs have set up shop and are being recognized for efforts that are as crucial to the region as the auto industry.
“I moved home because another Detroit is happening,” announced writer Dream Hampton in her August 15 contribution to NPR entitled My American Dream Sounds Like The White Stripes.
26 years ago, well before dialogue around ways to re-imagine Detroit became a focal topic, an artistic visionary named Tyree Guyton founded the Heidelberg Project, “an open-air art environment in the heart of an urban community on Detroit’s East Side”. Nationally, as well as internationally, it has evolved into a vital example of how art and unfiltered creative expression can introduce a sort of Renaissance to an otherwise dismissed section of a city.
The Heidelberg Project, which is named after the street that contains the majority of it’s art installations, begins at the corner of Heidelberg and Mt Elliott. A colorful welcome sign stands on an open lot next to a large sun dial made of re-purposed stone and brick. Directly next to them is the wood-framed yellow “Guestbook House” where Big Bunny resides with her family. Appearing from her front door, she welcomed my family and I by bringing us up to speed on the project’s history and current affairs, then proudly discussed the names and countries colorfully written along the entire front exterior of her house. We scanned over signatures and messages from East Lansing, Chicago, Grand Rapids and Pittsburgh, and then fixated on salutations from Russia, Israel, Australia and Japan. As my oldest daughter diligently added her name to the collection, I couldn’t help but think of the project’s impact and how far away some of these places must seem to Big Bunny.
“I don’t need to travel,” she laughed “The world comes to me!”
Social and political interpretations are commonly seen throughout the Heidelberg Project. Found objects and discarded materials compose artistic messages relative to America’s healthcare debate, it’s dependency on foreign oil and global warming. Entire abandoned houses are enamored with items that flaunt outdated technologies, cultural icons and images of controversial figures.
While exploring the many weathered structures tucked within reclaimed vegetation, I found it easy to get a sense of isolation that otherwise would engulf the block if not for it’s unique visual attractions. Occasionally, the reality of east Detroit became evident when a frail individual walked by or a house gutted by fire revealed itself a block away. To those unfamiliar, the shock of experiencing this sort of urban realm for the first time must be strong. A luxury European import, donned with plates from California, quickly rode down the main thoroughfare despite the fact it’s occupants were clearly holding high-end camera and video equipment. A family-packed minivan from Illinois, perhaps taking a detour en route to a summer vacation in the Upper Peninsula, hummed by us with it’s windows rolled up and every passenger faced forward anxiously awaiting a return to their intended path.
The Heidelberg Project represents what it means to be resilient, to be able to withstand or recover from difficult conditions. Prior to the tenure of Dave Bing, the current mayor of Detroit, city politicians and administrators commonly attempted to halt or extinguish the existence of the Heidelberg Project, viewing it as controversial or perhaps unsightly. Nonetheless, Mr. Guyton and a strong contingent of artists have kept his vision alive, well and viable. It is this exact trait of resiliency that makes Detroit so original, relevant and fascinating to both it’s people and those who have an inherent bond with it’s way of life.
I’d like to thank Meghan (IG) @_meegs and Monique (IG) @justthemojo for their time to meet up with my family and I. The mobile photography community in Detroit is extremely talented and passionate to share their city.
• Reimagining Detroit: Opportunities for Redefining an American City by John Gallagher
• Made in Detroit by Paul Clemens
All mobile photographs were captured and edited with Camera+.