What a Detroit public art project has to teach us about culture, power and activism

In 1986, nearly two decades after the smoke cleared from the Detroit riots of 1967, Tyree Guyton and his family began making found art out of the flotsam of abandoned and scorched homes in his neighborhood. Where others saw blight, Guyton saw an opportunity to advocate for the people who used to live there, and those who live there still among the ghosts of neighbors they used to talk to across fences and kitchen tables. For more than 30 years, Guyton has transformed the bleak houses squatting like a serfdom of abandoned hermit crab shells, all set against the spired and misty alps of an almost fully gentrified downtown Detroit. The city — and, eventually, the world — took notice, with visitors coming by the thousands each year to gawk at his piles of shoes, chairs slung onto the tops of dead trees and baby doll heads staring back from pane-less windowsills.

In the world of what would become known as The Heidelberg Project, there are many messages, but one stands out more than all others: remember. Remember that these random objects belonged to people, that at one time someone cared enough about the mountain of stuffed animals riding in a now-moored boat to buy them and give them to a loved one, and that those loved ones used to live there. Remember that the vinyl records nailed to a house frame still contain music that someone played once, perhaps on the very spot where an observer might be standing, back when it was still a living room. Remember that people lived there once, and that they made homes and lives of the debris we merely observe.

The Heidelberg Project is an effort that ideally creates more witnesses than tourists; a witness can attest and be moved to act, while a tourist is just a tourist. The conditions that created the Heidelberg neighborhood, fomented its demise and finally inspired its rebirth as an artistic statement still persist. Poverty and racism need constant redress, and from people who aren’t directly impacted by them — people often too busy surviving to march or protest or donate time and money. Such conditions are usually precursors to gentrification — first neglect, then displacement, then blight, then low-risk interest, and finally the cycling of ever-increasing value flips. Neighborhoods like the one in which the Heidelberg Project resides are easy targets for development, which is part of why the city of Detroit has attempted to raze it several times over the years. There have been fires. There have been bulldozers. There have been warnings and political machinations… all while winning awards and grants, hosting street festivals, receiving commissions for new work in other locales and an appearance on “Oprah” (after which then-mayor Coleman Young ordered part of the project to be demolished).

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Guyton has created a public plaza in the purest sense, in the footsteps of ancient Egyptian and Chinese public developers, when such spaces were used to make pronouncements by people in power to its citizens. The Heidelberg Project is not a collection of pretty and disjointed tombstones. It is not art for art’s sake. The entire effort brings the lost to the fore, then gives them voice, imbuing its subjects with value once again.

It is not enough to see such work and claim the experience complete. If a viewer is not compelled to change something in their life or the pocket of the world in which they live in response to seeing such work — if one is not compelled to become a witness — then they have not seen the work in the way that is most important. The Heidelberg Project is work that is transformative, and if you are not transformed, you either have a problem or are part of the problem that makes such work necessary.

When Guyton and company sought to purchase the lots that the Project sits on two years ago, they were denied by the Detroit Land Bank. A year later, they came to terms with the city to dismantle and relocate certain efforts, while at the same time converting the lots upon which the work currently sits into living and studio spaces with a mixed-lifestyle lean, meaning artists living and working alongside people who just want to live in a cool and now-valuable place. The idea for what is being called Heidelberg 3.0 is that it will be a new kind of community, and on the surface, no one should complain about that. We’ll see if the neighbor who has lived in the area for years and lets visitors sign their names on the boards of her house in the spirit of public art (but for a donation, so also in the spirit of survival) gets to stay. Like all successful tourist attractions, the project is responsible for millions of residual visitor dollars per year. There was no way the city was going to allow anything with a footprint that size to live and not maximize its benefits.

Whatever 3.0 becomes, we know what it will not be, and that is what troubled me today seeing it profiled on a national morning news show, this time heralding a new era of developments. What the project is and has been is important in and of itself. Its message has not just been a Detroit message, but a message about the power of art and the resiliency of culture, how art often first finds its way through the need for humans to express themselves as beings, not painters or musicians. By virtue of its existence an artistic statement can keep speaking once complete. I fear that when it is gone — dismantled, trucked away, sold, refurbished, reevaluated with the civic lens — it will not be saying the same things.

There is a lesson about how culture engages power here, as well as the toll of fighting just to be heard, and the many losses such fighting accrues. There’s a lesson, too, in finally being allowed to engage the machine of power in ways that its engineers are more comfortable with, that they understand, and how such engagements confer rewards on that culture willing to play different ball.

I would not dream in 100 years to tell Tyree Guyton what he should do as an artist, an educator or a person. I have done maybe three activities for as long as Tyree Guyton has been building a neighborhood of missions and memories, and none of my actions had his impact. If he says he has climbed his mountain and his statement is complete, then it is. I do, however, often dream of a world in which such places exist, that do not fall under the purview of change and gentrification, that get to stand and keep making their statements. It’s not like we don’t need to be reminded of them. We are not changing the world for the better faster than it is changing for the worst. We need ideas and statements that remind us of what we have done, why we have done them and how to not repeat those actions, and those ideas and statements need spaces in which they can exist. If a conversation about the ills that plague our society must take place, let them take place in ways that take up precious space and that we do not allow to bend to the values of machines and politicians. Let them continue to speak until there is nothing left to talk about.