Beauty in a Former Ghetto

Heidelburg Project- Street View,  Photo credit: The Heidelburg Project.

Heidelburg Project- Street View, Photo credit: The Heidelburg Project.

It’s faced intense criticism from neighbors who thought it an eyesore, and large parts were bulldozed by the city twice.   Even Oprah Winfrey called it a public nuisance.  Admittedly, it doesn’t translate well in photographs; it must be experienced, and those that actually visit Heidelburg Street can vouch that artist Tyree Guyton has worked nothing short of a miracle in a former ghetto.  His is art with a purpose, and it’s made a difference. 

Guyton grew up on Heidelburg Street in Detroit, a city sharply divided across economic and racial faultiness exacerbated by the race riots of 1967, after which the neighborhood rapidly deteriorated.  In 1986, Guyton decided to do something about it.  With the help of his late grandfather, he started covering abandoned homes with found objects and painting everything on Heidelburg Street with thousands of vibrant polka-dots.  The street slowly evolved into a massive outdoor multimedia public artwork incorporating sculpture, painting, installation, collage, and more.

The past year has been rough on the Heidelburg. Six of its iconic colorfully painted houses were set ablaze by arsonists.  But, phoenix-like, the project lives on, and now much of the street assumes the airy, grassy feel of a sculpture park.

Heidelburg Project

Dotty Wotty House, Photo credit: The Heidelburg Project.

Viewers today will confront thousands of brightly colored polka dots on houses, sidewalks, and the street, cute stuffed animals and creepy hairless dolls disconcertingly crucified to trees; random and improbably placed flower gardens, hundreds of shoes hanging from trees and fences, and salvaged objects from the destroyed homes (of which little trace remains), spread throughout the neighborhood’s grassy areas.  It looks like madness, but there’s method in it.  The dolls, for example, are a reference to the senseless deaths by violence of so many of Detroit’s children.

Its critics argue that there’s a condescending artificiality in the rhapsodic praise lavished on the project by invasive, predominantly middle-class tourists who stay for a few minutes and then return to nice homes elsewhere where they bask in self-congratulation for having the pluck to venture to Detroit’s East side.  Furthermore, what if things were reversed, and throngs of inner-city, low income tourists descended on a middle-class suburb, cameras in hand?  These are reasonable objections, not to be flippantly dismissed.

Heidelburg Project Scultpure

Souls on Fire, Photo credit: the Heidelburg Project.

But the Heidelberg has brought tangible change to the neighborhood. Drug dealers and crack houses are no longer a presence, pedestrians feel safe, children can (and do) use the area like a playground, and, staggeringly, it brings nearly 300,000 visitors annually to a formerly blighted ghetto.  And for nearly 30 years, Guyton has created a space in which blacks and whites encounter each other as physical people rather than as abstract others, which, in light of recent tensions in Ferguson is something needed now more than ever.  If that’s not beautiful, what is?

Meet the artist and learn more about the project here in a short video produced by the Heidelburg Project.

The Heidelburg Project’s website is replete with images and answers to frequently asked questions:

By Jonathan Rinck

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