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30-Year-Old Folk Art Project Remains a Constant in a Changing Detroit

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The Heidelberg Project offers a different experience every visit. On a blindingly blue and gold fall day, the trees lining Heidelberg street carry heavy canopy, the leaves brown and gold and green and yellow. People walk slowly among the old homes, pausing often to look at new displays. Some of the visuals competing for attention include a fence covered in hundreds of shoes, a park bench made of reclaimed golden oak, circles in sage and indigo and dusty pink on the blacktop of the street itself. The people visiting, mostly white, take pictures of everything, sometimes with expensive cameras, mostly with their cell phones. On a Sunday just before Halloween, a woman photographs a girl of nine or ten. The child has long fingerless gloves and makeup that makes her look like a waif in a gothic novel. She poses against the massive chartreuse fence surrounding artist Tim Burke's sculpture garden, which takes up at least three residential lots on the street. Burke makes art with salvaged building materials, discarded industrial supplies, and actual bits of old Detroit: some of the tiles inside his studio come from the old YWCA, one of the city's first integrated institutions. The tile is Detroit's iconic Pewabic tile, world famous in arts-and-crafts design.

When people think of Heidelberg, the nearly 30-year-old folk art environment made of houses and vacant lots in a neighborhood on Detroit's east side, they think of Tyree Guyton, the founding artist. Guyton began transforming vacant houses on his grandparents' street into vibrantly painted art pieces in 1986. A variety of Detroit mayors, unindicted and otherwise, tore out houses and sculptures, but Guyton persisted. The project occupies a square block bounded by Heidelberg Street, Mt. Elliott, Ellery, and Elba Place. Heidelberg Street has the greatest concentration of Guyton's art and is the site of the project's initial house, Guyton's grandparents' place. With his grandfather, Sam Mackey, Guyton painted hundreds of brightly colored dots on the two-story white frame house. Today, he calls it the People's House, and the dots represent the diverse makeup of the city.

Heidelberg has remained a constant in a demographically shifting Detroit. The city's population approached 1.8 million in 1950 but by 2013 had shrunk to just 690,000. Detroit is still shrinking, but after years of epitomizing white flight, the city's white population grew from fewer than 76,000 to more than 88,000 between 2010 and 2014, according to US census data. Bruce Katz, co-director of the Global Cities Initiative at the Brookings Institution, attributes that increase to the city's many opportunities for community-building. "For any individual who wants to build a company or contribute to the city, Detroit is the perfect place to be," Katz said. The new arrivals are working to make their mark on the city and at placemaking in their new home. They can look for guidance to the Heidelberg Project, which is both a unique institution and part of a larger Detroit tradition, that of men and women transforming the built environment as a kind of personal and civic expression. As Heidelberg's Guyton rebuilds in the wake of a devastating series of arsons in 2013, his project is more important to the city than ever before.

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On Mt. Elliott, a busy street that intersects with Mack Avenue, linking Heidelberg with Grosse Pointe to the east and with upscale downtown Detroit to the west, houses Guyton painted and adorned with sculpture have mostly burned, lost to arson in 2013 and 2014. The fires started in May 2013 when arsonists torched Obstruction of Justice House. In the two years that followed, arson struck eight of Heidelberg's installation houses. House of Soul, the Penny House, Party Animal House, War House, and Clock House burned to their brick foundations, while the Number House (which Heidelberg uses as a gallery and visitor center) and the Taxi House sustained less serious damage. Detroit Industrial Gallery, artist Tim Burke's property on Heidelberg Street—which is set among Tyree Guyton's displays but is not affiliated with Guyton or the Heidelberg Project—was declared a total loss.

Guyton refused to accept that defeat. He has transformed the ruined foundations into stages for tableaux.

"The volume of materials gathered in those two blocks is mind-boggling," said Carrie Dickason, an artist whose work was featured in Heidelberg's Number House gallery space. "The way that he continues to rebuild, especially on the buildings that have been burnt, on the foundations, it's such an interesting combination and use and shows perseverance."

Before the fires, Guyton spent years adorning the House of Soul—which many used to call the record album house—with dozens of vinyl records. Now, new timbers covered in more records frame the shape of a house. Inside this empty space, a cross-like post bears the inscription "soul never dies."

The Heidelberg Project, which brings in visitors from all over the U.S. and the world, has something of an accidental legacy to uphold. The project itself brings in immediate benefits: a study conducted by the Center for Creative Community Development (C3D) found that the nonprofit's annual $400,000 budget netted over 50,000 visitors a year, creating an annual economic impact of nearly $3 million in Detroit proper. The study linked Heidelberg Project to the creation of 40 jobs.

Heidelberg also fits within a larger tradition of Detroiters designing estates to order. In the first half of the 20th century, Palmer Woods' Alfred Fisher, an auto body magnate, commissioned a 15-bedroom estate, hiring Detroit architect Richard Marr to create a lavish retreat inside the city. (The house, with its formal English gardens, a ballroom, and an indoor pool, was purchased by General Motors president Daniel Ammann two months ago.) Cranbrook, a Detroit-area art school, represents an idealized vision for a community built around design. And more recently, in October, Detroit floral designer Lisa Waud unveiled Flower House, transforming a derelict home she bought at auction into rooms full of elaborate (and sometimes disconcerting) tableaux using thousands of American-grown, sustainably farmed flowers and plants. She plans to use funds raised displaying the home to create a permanent structure on the site, a center for her design business, and a flower farm.

Most famously, the Ford family has a special place in local and national lore for creating elaborate environments for family life. Foremost among the Fords in these endeavors were Edsel and Eleanor Ford. Edsel, Henry Ford's only child, created their Grosse Pointe estate as a refuge not only from the city and the demands of auto executive working life, but from Henry Ford himself. Edsel Ford and his high school sweetheart, Eleanor Clay, raised four children in a sprawling, Albert Kahn-designed estate on Lake St. Clair. The buildings look like something out of an English village, low and elegant, made of stone and stained glass and covered with ivy. In addition to the main house, the grounds feature a tiny cottage built to three-quarters scale–a playhouse designed especially for Edsel's young daughter Josephine. It had working electricity and plumbing, and a tiny oven where little Josephine Ford baked cookies with her mother.

"Edsel Ford loved the arts," explains Josephine Shea, a curator at the Edsel and Eleanor Ford house. "He was a huge supporter of MOMA in New York City, and the DIA." During Detroit's bankruptcy in 2013, people all over the city responded with horror to the idea that treasures from the beloved museum might be sold off to pay the city's debts. Edsel Ford, too, would likely have been appalled. He died in 1943 at the age of 50. Eleanor survived him by more than 30 years. As she got older, she thought more and more of leaving her home to a foundation, so that the public could enjoy it and its many art treasures could be properly preserved.

"The Fords wanted to do more than build a house," Shea explained. "They wanted to design a life."

Tyree Guyton worked on the line at Ford, and the idea of designing a life is also front and center at Heidelberg Project. Though Guyton lacks Ford's resources, he has worked tirelessly at designing his own life, at shaping Heidelberg into an artistic legacy that would mean something to the community. The work even provided him with a wife. Jenenne Whitfield, who now serves as Heidelberg Project's executive director, made a wrong turn while driving in Detroit one day in the early 1990s. She found herself on Heidelberg Street, where she saw Guyton working on Obstruction of Justice house. At the time, she'd grown tired of corporate work, having put in nearly fifteen years at Michigan State Bank.

"I was driving back to work, procrastinating. A car was on my tail and it forced me down Heidelberg Street. It was July of '93. That's when it all began for me," Whitfield said during an interview at Heidelberg's offices. Heidelberg Project HQ is a brick building on Watson Street, not far from Whole Foods and a BMX park volunteers built (without permission) on city-owned land. Whitfield has a smooth, unlined face and always looks impeccable. She's also 100 percent no-bullshit and is so plainly about something that it gives her tremendous presence.

"I really just thought I'd pick this person's brain about what he was doing," she said, pointing to a portrait of Tyree Guyton on the conference room wall. "But I kept going back, and kept going back. After six months, he asked if I'd help him, and I said no. But he kept asking. He'd show me correspondence from all over the world, from people telling him to not give up. I started answering the mail. That became my first year, and now it's grown into twenty."

When asked about her marriage to Tyree Guyton, she seems surprised that I know about it, but their New York Times wedding story comes up pretty close to the top of any web search. She laughed and called the Times wedding announcement the "biggest piece of press" in her career. She also said she and Guyton don't like to advertise the relationship.

"It took a long time because we were so opposite, so different, and fought a lot, but we had a type of electricity between us that made this engine really run. It's a three-way love affair, because whenever we can't stand each other, the work brings us back together," she said.

Jenenne Whitfield isn't the only one to find love on Heidelberg Street. Technically, Cynthia Hollingsworth found her husband in New York, but the man she married brought her home to Heidelberg.

"I married a man and he was already staying here," Hollingsworth said one day during a visit inside her Heidelberg Street house. She looks far younger than her 103 years and has lived in her semi-detached two-story for more than 60 years.

"It was lively when I moved here," she tells me. "Not a vacant place. Now, we've got just two or three of us here. But I'm staying put."

Hollingsworth has a thousand stories about life on Heidelberg Street when it was still wholly a neighborhood. She said that all the families on the street, mostly African American autoworkers and their families, were good friends and neighbors. "There was no fussing," she said. "All of us in the neighborhood watched out for the other. Some of them are still over there." She described her husband as working for "General Motors, Cadillac." He also had a little business putting in driveways, helping people in Detroit to make their homes modern, laying down fresh white concrete, creating places to park American-made cars.

Hollingsworth lived in New York in the 1940s, working in a war plant before moving on to a pocketbook factory. During the war, she made machetes for the troops, standing for hours on the factory floor while wearing high-heeled shoes. Her first marriage ended, and her second husband brought her to Detroit in the 1950s.

She remembers the 1967 riots, soldiers in the streets of Detroit, hiding in basements with her children. Hollingsworth had a close friend a few doors down, another housewife who raised six children on Heidelberg Street. The house they lived in became Obstruction of Justice House years after they all left it. Now the structure is a burned foundation, lost to arson. Hollingsworth remembers the street as a place where families walked to church. Her church once stood just around the corner from her house, but it too has burned.

Down the street, Hollingsworth has a longtime neighbor who resisted Tyree Guyton's requests to decorate her home's exterior. Otila Bell moved into the yellow house near the corner of Heidelberg Street and Mount Elliot Avenue in 1986. She watched as Tyree made each of his installations, politely declining whenever he asked if he could paint her house, too. She said she still feels a twinge of anger about coming home to find that he'd painted the trees in front of her place to match others on the street.

"That's the only real problem the neighbors have with it," she says as she sits on the front porch of her family home. She gestures to the art installations all around her. "People just want to be asked." Bell, a large woman with straight grey hair in a neat bob, sits on the porch behind a folding table. Her home bears a sign that asks passersby to "like" it on Facebook. For a dollar donation, visitors can sign their names on the house's wood siding. The house, a golden mustard color, has hundreds of names written on it in different colors of magic marker. Though a sign asks that people not use black ink, Charlie LeDuff, author of Detroit: An American Autopsy, signed using black marker. He also signed a spot directly over the front door, and his name takes up a good foot or more of real estate.

Bell found the arsons horrifying, and she was often the first person from the block to comment publicly, doing so on the Facebook page for her house, which she called the Yellow House Guestbook. She said that the arsons made her feel unsafe, and she worried for the safety of the daughter and grandson who live with her on Heidelberg Street. Otila Bell's late-night Facebook posts about the arsons are haunting. She describes the fires and her fears, and asks readers to pray for her family's safety, and for the safety of other residents on the block. Children live in the occupied houses. On a summer day, you'll see little girls walking together in small groups. None of the occupied homes on the block sustained irreversible damage in the arsons, but the fires reminded Detroit that Heidelberg isn't just art—it's a neighborhood.

While people on the street and in the offices will speak to press, Guyton himself is an almost impossible interview to get. When he's working on a gallery show, like Make It Greater: The Heidelberg Project's 30-Year Legacy, the show he currently has installed at the University of Michigan Art Museum in Ann Arbor, he focuses intently on the work, and staffers at Heidelberg refuse requests for interviews. While formal sitdowns are hard, finding Guyton at the site is simple. He's there almost every work day, putting up new pieces on the site and making larger works—some painted on the salvaged hoods of old cars—for his gallery shows. If you visit Heidelberg, you might see his gold watch sitting on the counter of a tiny wooden info kiosk by the central green space for safekeeping. Heidelberg Project also stores a gigantic papier-mâché animal in the booth, a massive, doglike thing with huge eyes whose pupils point in opposite directions, as well as a real stuffed animal, a decrepit taxidermy moose head.

Guyton has brief conversations with people on the street all the time, dispensing a certain kind of wisdom with a certain kind of attitude. Tourists like to get a moment with the artist, and he almost always obliges them. When I spoke to him as he was preparing for an earlier show in New York, I found him just as he'd started working on a large painting of a face. The canvas for this work, an old car hood, rested against one of the many tall trees that line Heidelberg Street. Guyton dipped his brush into a can of house paint and applied a curving line in orange to the grey-painted hood.

I complimented the work and asked if the paint he was using was house paint. He said it was. "I hope you found everything you needed here," he added.

Over the years, other artists have joined Guyton at Heidelberg. During a visit to the site shortly after the bankruptcy, I found Tim Burke working outdoors, painting the words "War is not a family value" in bold, orange strokes on a white foam board as blues guitar wailed from an old-school boom box. Burke has been part of the street since 1990, though he rejects the title Heidelberg Project officials give him in their press materials, that of artist in residence.

Burke, who stands about 5'8" and has a greyish beard, bought his tiny house in 1990 for $2000, later spending about $10,000 on improvements and to buy the adjacent vacant lot. He installed a sculpture garden there, and it seems haunted as night falls. Many of the figures, tall, gaunt human forms constructed from the timbers of burned buildings (none, says Burke, came from Heidelberg houses), seem mournful or angry.

While Tim Burke bought his Heidelberg property without any consultation with Heidelberg Project or Guyton, Michigan artist Carrie Dickason, who had a show recently at the project's Number House, submitted work and was invited to contribute to the site.

"I've been going to the Heidelberg Project since I went to Cranbrook in 2006," Dickason said in a phone interview from the Vermont Studio Center, where she's an artist in residence. "I've been using post consumer materials in my work since the mid 90s. It's definitely a common interest that drew me to the Heidelberg project. I've continued to visit…all this time and when people visit, I take them there," she added.

Like Guyton, Dickason, known for bold, kinetic sculptures, often repurposes discarded objects and materials. She intends her work as a statement against the waste involved in manufacturing, and as a way of including her own history—her father worked in an automotive rubber goods plant in Indiana, and she's used rubber from the factory in many of her pieces.

"You'll see rubber that looks like oozing lava. That's actually automotive rubber that's die cut and comes on rolls with an adhesive backing. It's part of the firewall between the engine and the car," Dickason explained. "I found some of this material in my father's garage and have used it in a lot of work."

Unlike Detroit's other designed neighborhoods and estates, Dickason sees Heidelberg as representative of a more working-class approach. "I associate that neighborhood with being so close to the Packard Plant and being a working class neighborhood that was functional. Just a very different purpose for the place."

In spite of the arsons and other challenges to his work, Guyton remains undeterred. He's traveled to Switzerland and Germany to promote the Heidelberg Project, and sources close to the nonprofit say that he doesn't care one iota about cashing in or publicity. One former staffer put it succinctly. "He's all about the work," the former employee said, adding, "Tyree doesn't care if he makes another cent. All he wants is to make art. He doesn't even care if anyone likes it."

Just a few months after the arsons, on a freezing day in March 2013, Guyton, wearing a heavy coat with a large orange dot painted on the back in house paint, was working at the site, making adjustments to the green space between Tim Burke's property and the end of the block. At the time, Guyton said he had plans for Heidelberg.

"What could stop this?" he asked, waving an arm at his creations. Arsonists couldn't, nor could three different Detroit mayors. There are many tiny signs scattered around Heidelberg with the word "Detroit" on them, alongside the city's Latin motto: speramus meliora; resurget cineribus. This translates to, "We hope for better things; it will rise from the ashes." As he works day in, day out on his art, Tyree Guyton seems to embody this idea, never losing the hope that drives him, while the Heidelberg Project, unbroken by no fewer than ten arson fires in less than two years, rises brilliantly from ash.

· Official site: The Heidelberg Project [Heidelberg.org]
· Made in Detroit archive [Curbed]