Mr. Guyton's Neighborhood: Detroit's Heidelberg Project is still evolving

·5 min read

Jul. 24—DETROIT — The Heidelberg Project attracts an estimated 50,000 people each year, but no two visits are the same.

The outdoor art environment is constantly in development under the eye of Tyree Guyton, the artist who's been working in the neighborhood since the 1980s. Guyton can still be found maintaining it weekly, and even mans an "information booth" where he sits and talks with visitors.

His art installation is located on Heidelberg Street in Detroit, about an hour from the Glass City, where Guyton was raised as a child. Upon returning to a drug- and poverty-stricken neighborhood in 1986, Guyton and his grandfather began cleaning up dilapidated lots and transforming what was once considered junk into treasure. Even after his grandfather passed away in 1992, Guyton continued to gain national recognition and host exhibits in other states, like New York. But he always returned to his roots, using repurposed materials and an integrated landscape to create the Heidelberg Project.

If You Go

What: The Heidelberg Project

When: 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily

Where: 3600 block of Heidelberg Street, Detroit, Mich.

Admission: Free; monetary donations are welcomed


"If you can do it at home, you can do it anywhere in the world. ... Why not come back and help to change things here at home?" Guyton said of his installations during a recent visit, when he was tidying up an art piece. "I can't stop [creating art]. This is divine, straight from God. You can't stop this."

A small sign that reads "Home is Where the Art Is" is initially eye-catching upon approaching the Heidelberg Project, because it accurately defines the installation. The Numbers House is to the right of the sign, and is painted with numbers inspired by its former owner's hopes of winning the lottery. Thelma Woods and her family asked to be part of the Heidelberg Project, and as a result, the painted numbers helped children living in the neighborhood learn how to count.

The People's House, also known as the Dotty Wotty, is the home Guyton grew up in and still owns today. Perhaps the best known and well recognized, the house is covered in colorful polka dots. The artist's message is to celebrate a racially integrated and inclusive society.

Other art objects include a pile of wired shopping carts entitled Online Shopping, rows of painted TV sets and car hoods, taxi cabs representing the Motor City, and Noah's Ark — a painted boat packed with large stuffed animals.

Visitors can schedule a guided tour of the Heidelberg Project, or download the project's free app. The latter includes information about staple displays, but each visit is bound to be different, since new items are always being added.

"When you think of the Heidelberg Project, you think of Tyree [Guyton]," the project's program director Margaret Grace said. "He goes out and finds materials driving around, and brings them here. He believes if you can pick items up, brush them off, and give them a fresh coat of paint, it offers a new perspective."

Jenenne Whitfield, president and CEO of the project, said that the project saw interest especially during the pandemic year, when locals would walk through the exhibit and take in some fresh air at the nearby park grounds. The organization has begun green space development, such as permaculture projects and fund-raising for more benches and tables, to make a more comfortable experience for visitors.

But the project is more than just its outdoor art environment; it is a nonprofit organization driven to help its community and neighboring areas, too.

"It's important for us to know that we are so much more than the art environment that you see on the street," Whitfield said. "[The Heidelberg Project] is working with young adults in high school and those in alternative education. Art is like medicine, and it's a beautiful thing to teach children that people think are troubled through art."

The Heidelberg Arts Leadership Academy, or HALA, is an in-school and after-school program that has 10 school partnerships across Detroit's East Side. It is housed in the Heidelberg Project's headquarters, dubbed the Heidelberg Campus, which is just two blocks from the art environment. The building features classrooms, teen spaces, and even a podcasting studio for students "using art as a platform for social justice," according to HALA director Keisa Davis.

In addition to academic programming, HALA launched a summer camp this month for youth to learn about nature and the environment through art. Enrolled 10- to 12-year-olds are creating their own art and helping with the various gardening projects currently underway.

After touring the art environment, Millennials and young adults can head over to Spot Lite, an art gallery that also acts as a bar and record store. Just a seven-minute walk from the outdoor art installation, Spot Lite is a "creative space" where people can come during the day to drink coffee or tea, and after sunset listen to live bands and dance the night away, said Roula David, Spot Lite owner and Heidelberg Project board of directors vice president.

The space has been open for nearly two months, and children are welcomed before dark. David jointly owns the building with Guyton and his wife, Whitfield. Visitors looking for a bite to eat can travel six minutes by car to Detroit's Eastern Market, home to fresh foods, restaurants, and local businesses.

All are welcomed to come to this emerging arts district, and stay to look at, ponder, and appreciate the unique art on display.

"The Heidelberg Project is a living, breathing art environment," Grace said. "And it's constantly changing."

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