The Heidelberg Project is an outdoors street art project located on Detroit’s eastside. Since artist Tyree Guyton began the project in 1986, it has become well known in urban art circles, attracting thousands of visitors.
Growing up just a few miles from the Heidelberg Project, I have toured the remarkable two-block exhibit on more than one occasion. It is a beautiful but raw depiction of the urban struggle in Detroit.
So I was upset, to say the least, when I learned yesterday that Heidelberg had again been the victim of a likely arson. I don’t understand why someone would try to destroy the project, which has become a symbol of hope for many people in Detroit. Yet this is the fifth fire at Heidelberg this year.
Officials from Detroit’s fire department have said that an arson unit will investigate the blaze. Hundreds of vacant homes catch on fire in Detroit each year, but the rash of fires at the Heidelberg Project is different. The structures there aren’t exactly empty.
This time it was the project’s “House of Soul,” an abandoned home dedicated to the Detroit’s Motown musical roots. The house had been decorated with hundreds of old-style records, including many by artists born in the city. Now it is a charred shell of its former self.
Last month, the Heidelberg project’s “Obstruction of Justice House” was destroyed in a suspicious fire. It was the second time that the home had been targeted. Afterwards, Heidelberg officials issued a statement on the project’s website. In it they claimed to know the identity of the arsonist. They also offered a message to that person:
“We want you to know that we understand your pain. We realize that all you’ve grown to know is destruction and that you see no way out. This is precisely why we are here. Our work is not about tangible “things,” it is about the Power of the Human Spirit. We recognize that there is a fire in you and we are here not to extinguish it, but to offer you a better reason to fuel it. Though you have tried, you cannot destroy the Heidelberg Project; it’s bigger than all of us now. Instead, we invite you to join our family in creating a better neighborhood, a better Detroit, if not for anyone else than for yourself. As Tyree has said, “If you believe, you can change it…” We believe.”
Hopefully their words resound with the arsonist. I know that they will with anyone who supports the project. What started as Guyton’s re-imagination of the urban decay in his childhood neighborhood, has taken on much larger significance in Detroit. And not in the ‘ruin-porn’ manner adopted by many who depict the city.
The Heidelberg Project manages to tell the story of Detroit, but without getting wrapped up in the doom and gloom of its decline. Instead it is full of color, and exudes the positive energy that has taken hold in Detroit as of late. Plus, development in Heidelberg is an ongoing process, and I have no doubt that Guyton will eventually incorporate the damage done by the fires into his vision for the project.
The next time you are in Detroit, I urge you to visit the Heidelberg Project. What you will find there is not only beautiful, but another example of why many have faith that Detroit is on the cusp of a resurgence.