This Artist Turned A Mostly Abandoned City Block Into His Ever-Changing Masterpiece
"The Heidelberg Project is a beast. Survival is written all over it."
Jenenne Whitfield rolled up on the Heidelberg Project entirely by accident. It was June 1993. She was driving through Detroit’s McDougall-Hunt neighborhood with her doors locked and windows up. Once home to auto industry workers, the area now had a reputation for being unsafe. With its bereft buildings and empty lots, McDougall-Hunt certainly looked the part.
When another driver forced her to turn early onto Heidelberg Street instead of Benson one block east, a visual cacophony of polka-dotted houses and what appeared to be random piles of colorful garbage abraded Whitfield’s eyes.
She rolled down her window and called out to a man sitting on the curb, “What in the hell is all of this?”
That’s how she met artist and activist Tyree Guyton. He told her to get out and check it out.
Whitfield gets a lot of mileage from this anecdote. It’s the beginning of her love affair with an often-overlooked part of Detroit, and with Guyton, who she married in 2001 and who has invested decades of himself into an art initiative called the Heidelberg Project.
“The Heidelberg Project is a beast,” says Whitfiled, now the chief executive officer. “It is an animal that was way before its time. Survival is written all over it.”
Guyton started the Heidelberg Project in 1986 when he returned from armed service and saw how his neighborhood, which had thrived during his grandparents’ time -- they came to McDougall-Hunt in 1947 -- had steadily devolved in his absence.
Like so much of Detroit, the neighborhood became increasingly abandoned. McDougall-Hunt's decline up until that point mirrored so many oft-repeated stories of tragedy in Detroit. But it wouldn't for long. Soon, it would become unlike anything else in the city. Or anywhere else.
First, Guyton cleared out a vacant lot. Then, he transformed his childhood home, now known as the Dotty Wotty House, with sherbet-colored polka dots representing the world’s panoply of races and ethnicities. He pulled those same candy hues -- lemon, rose, and pistachio -- into intricate installations of lost toys, appliances, and cars, some of which are donated, many of which are found. Guyton even painted the asphalt.
Thirty years later, the Heidelberg Project has taken on a life of its own and extends over multiple blocks on the east side, seemingly a world away from the bustle of nearby downtown. In a city grid marked by modern ruins, its splashes of color are in stark contrast to both the run of uninhabited homes you see en route and the rapidly gentrifying pockets springing up in its orbit.
At first glance, you might mistake it as some sort of macabre folk-art market, or a quirky collection of discarded toys. But look closer, and these disparate elements coalesce into a decrepitly beautiful whole. What once seemed haunted becomes haunting; the journey through a blighted urban stretch suddenly becomes an immersion into an utterly unique vision.
There is an eerie whimsy to the overflowing boat of dirty pastel teddy bears and a deeply unsettling gravitas to “Soles of the Most High,” a visual double entendre that uses shoes to represent the souls of the lynching victims Guyton’s grandfather saw as a child. Clocks and vintage TV sets abound, recurring motifs that feel anxiously preoccupied with the passage of time. A nearby assemblage of burned doors has an almost sacred quality.
Other pieces are just plain fun. There is a “Heidelberg Television!” photo stand-in. Countless collections and curios are meticulously arranged into an archaeologists’ post-apocalyptic garage sale. A playfully-painted car drives out of the ground. There are polka dots upon polka dots upon polka dots.
What you take from all of this is up for interpretation. (The Heidelberg Project app can help you with that.)
“The site means many things to many people,” says Whitfield. “And you literally are curating your own experience with Heidelberg. It defines itself to each and every person that experiences it.”
Some have referred to the installation as “outsider art,” a problematic term that suggests aesthetic naivete and does not accurately describe Guyton’s life work.
In reality, it is a sophisticated work of 20th-century art, which creates an entirely immersive environment for visitors, says Kriss Ferluga, director of university academic services at Davenport University, a business and technology center in western Michigan. In a prior professorial role, Ferluga regularly took her art and cultural history students to the Heidelberg Project -- something that fell well outside their usual business curriculum.
“It was just amazing to just feel like I am now inside the art,” says Ferluga about her first trip. “Even when you’re in an art installation in a museum, you’re still very aware of your boundaries. [At Heidelberg] it was just like some different pieces of reality kind of came together in ways that I had not expected them to.”
Not everyone had that same reaction. For the first 25 years of the Heidelberg Project, people were basically trying to decide whether it was art or “junk,” Whitfield said on The D Brief podcast in 2018.
The City of Detroit interpreted it as the latter. It was demolished in 1991 and again in 1999. Later, arson did even more damage.
But like scrappy Detroit itself, where African Americans comprise 80% of the population, the Heidelberg Project continues to rise, a testament to Black resilience. Bankrupt cities don’t have much in the way of recreational centers and after school programs, so the Heidelberg Project also runs cultural programming for area young people, who have few options for structured creative expression.
These were curtailed during the pandemic, which hit Detroit particularly hard, especially in the early months. But the site itself has turned out to be the perfect socially-distanced art experience.
“The Heidelberg Project was probably one of the few organizations where the pandemi didn’t really affect our work,” Whitfield says.
“They’re saying things like, ‘it’s a place of refuge,’” she continues. “It’s a place to think. It’s a place of calm. It’s a place of peace.”
“Heidelbergology” knows no borders. Around 200,000 visitors visit Heidelberg Street each year and people from more than 140 countries have signed the guest book. Guyton’s work has inspired sister projects in such far-flung locales as Pakistan and Honduras.
And it continues to evolve, even as new folks, mostly artsy types, move into the area. Tyree Guyton has started dismantling parts of his magnum opus to pave the way for “Heidelberg 3.0.” Whatever that ends up looking like, one thing will stay the same.
“Heidelberg has always been about all people. It has remained relevant to all the cycles of what’s happened in the city of Detroit and the world,” says Whitfield. “I see Detroit as a microcosm for the rest of the world. But the Heidelberg Project is also a microcosm in a way [that] remains relevant...”