Detroit, site of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies annual convention last weekend, is a city with an infrastructure built for 2 million people that supports a population about a third of that size.
Choppers rumble through canyons of vacant high-rises on Friday nights. Twentysomethings in the uniform of the city’s annual Downtown Hoedown — crushed cowboy hats, boots and blue-jean cutoffs for the ladies — throng an empty parking lot for a techno party hosted by an Irish bar in Greektown; such are the cultural adaptations of a shrinking city. On my last night in town I witnessed a server walk off the job at a modest Greek eatery because the owner disrespected her mother. Said mother walked over and poured her beer on the owner. Only moments earlier the owner had thrown out two African-American parties whose only transgression, as far as I could tell, was to occupy the choice booths next to the window.
To visit Detroit is to peer into the strange and disturbing future of American cities – to glimpse a reality of fragmentation and pauperization that is the inevitable result of decades of rising inequality, capital flight and cultural polarization.
Detroit is awash in revitalization efforts: urban agriculture and farmers markets, graffiti artists writing their art large on the canvas of the shuttered industrial landscape, contests to award venture capital to aspiring retailers and developers buying up land on the cheap, along with art galleries, coffeehouses and other examples of hipster entrepreneurship. But Curt Guyette, news editor for the Metro Times, cautioned during a business reporting workshop on the first day of the convention that attention to Detroit’s pockets of revitalization obscure a grimmer reality: that the city continues to rapidly depopulate, and vast tracts resemble the Third World.
Perhaps no endeavor better represents Detroit’s creative response to economic devastation, its stubborn insistence on building vibrancy out of despair, than the Heidelberg Project.
Now in its 26th year, the Heidelberg Project is an outdoor art installation covering a block of Heidelberg Street that was created by Detroit native resident Tyree Guyton.
Each house is a canvas illustrated with various visual themes:
polka dots, numbers and animals. Stuffed animals lie heaped on an aluminum boat like a vision of Noah’s ark. Shopping carts adorn denuded tree trunks. Painted shoes hang from trees; they suspend inside bird cages and stuff cabinets. Modified cardboard cutouts mock power-mad politicians. Dolls, radiators and other reclaimed trash erupt in an orgy of sculpture.
Guyton is currently undertaking a one-year arts residency in Basel, Switzerland, but project Development Director Sharon Luckerman met a dozen or so of us journalists from the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies after we trundled out to the McDougall- Hunt neighborhood on a bus from our ritzy accommodations at the Grandin Book Cadillac.
Luckerman informed us that when Guyton was growing up on the Heidelberg Street, there were 66 houses on the block; now there are eight.
“The first person who left a house abandoned lived next door to him,” Luckerman told us. “And so he and his grandfather and the kids in the neighborhood cleared up all the trash, the tires, the dolls, suitcases, and then he started nailing them to the house. He had a vision of this before. But he started nailing them to the house, added a little color, and that started the Heidelberg Project.”
Luckerman referenced a study reported in Crain’s Detroit Business that found that the Heidelberg Project has a $3.4 million annual economic impact on Wayne County as a result of spending by visitors and has led to the creation of about 40 jobs. But she acknowledged that city leaders have not always embraced the project.
“Some people don’t like the story Tyree is telling,” she said.
“Some see junk and poverty at the Heidelberg Project. Others see a block that is being recycled, the people as well as the items left behind. There’s something authentic and powerful about what Tyree is doing. He doesn’t cover over the truth; he amplifies it — especially the resilience and creativity of the people.”