Yesterday I got a brief tour of Detroit, courtesy of an old friend who lives in Ann Arbor and teaches in Flint. The trip was too short for me to really wrap my mind around Detroit as a whole--I did notice how spread out it was, but I didn't always get a sense of what part of this was just a wider-scale city planning or a car-centered urban vision vs. Rust Belt depopulation. Until we went seeking Heidelberg Street. As soon as we turned off Jefferson Avenue and entered the neighborhood of McDougall-Hunt, I could see the Detroit I'd heard about: the abandoned and half-burnt houses, the many empty lots where houses used to be, no evidence of any grocery stores, and some evidence of urban gardening.
Then we reached The Heidelberg Project. Due to my longtime East Coast chauvinism no doubt, I had never heard of this amazing outsider-artist, two-block-wide "installation," although it has been around since 1986--growing, evolving, getting demolished by Detroit police, and growing back again like unstoppable knotweed. One Detroit resident, Tyree Guyton, grew up on Heidelberg Street and witnessed the 1968 riots, from which he says Detroit has never recovered. After he began cleaning up the debris in empty lots and abandoned houses on his block, he started to create art by decorating the empty houses with the trashed items he'd found. The result is colorful, beautiful, and critical, and seems to succeed in getting attention for the plight of the neighborhood and the city--and Detroit's efforts to rally around creative community engagement. While we walked around, we overheard one of the street's residents explaining the project to a visitor, and saw foreign tourists stopping to shoot pictures and wander among the houses, the sculptures, and the makeshift billboards. We met an artist, Lisa Marie Rodriguez, who is an artist-in-residence at the Heidelberg, studying at Wayne State U. She's been working on an entranceway to the block and has constructed a welcome sign, a sun dial, and a meditation garden. She knew all the neighborhood residents who passed by and told us that the community wants to see not only that they get attention, but that someone sticks around and cares about the continued progress of the neighborhood. She considers herself an artist in residence for the long run.
This project is best described in images; see more pictures here.