Allie Gross Detroit Free Press
Published 6:00 AM EDT Sep 21, 2018
When Jenenne Whitfield talks about the unassuming three-story brick building on Detroit’s east side, her speech, typically sonorous and deliberate, rises with excitement.
“We’ve never had a headquarters in the neighborhood, ever!” the CEO of the Heidelberg Project, the iconic and world-celebrated outdoor art installation, explained from the group’s temporary headquarters in West Village.
“To have one that has a residence and the six lots — it’s like a dream come true.”
Since 1986, the Heidelberg Project — a series of abandoned homes and lots adorned with found objects and bright paints, a large-scale art project created by Whitfield’s husband, Tyree Guyton — had survived some magnificently frustrating obstacles.
There were showdowns over legitimacy with two city administrations (Coleman Young and Dennis Archer) that resulted in demolitions in 1991 and 1999. There were fires — 12 between 2013 and 2015 — that went unsolved. Then last year, the Detroit Land Bank denied a request to become a “Community Partner” — a designation that allows nonprofits and faith-based organizations to buy properties in bundles from the Land Bank’s vast inventory. Heidelberg had wanted to purchase 40 vacant parcels in the neighborhood, land that Whitfield said the group had essentially been “sharecropping” and giving value to over the last three decades.
But, according to Whitfield, just as the project has overcome adversity in the past — with a mix of rabble-rousing and creativity — this coming year is no different.
In June 2017, the Heidelberg Project purchased 3442 McDougall and its adjoining lots for $490,000. Two months later, in August 2017, it went in 50-50 with artists Jesse Cory and Roula David, owners of Inner State Gallery and 1xRun, and purchased 2905 Beaufait — a 20,000-square-foot building two blocks from the Heidelberg Project — for $350,000.
More: ArtPrize 2018: Detroit-area artists shine at Grand Rapids competition
More: Ex-Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy tackles sexual assault with public art
The nonprofit will be moving into the McDougall headquarters in February. Come spring, the Beaufait warehouse is slated to open as a café, gallery and event space.
And while the group is still working to purchase 40 vacant parcels from the City of Detroit — this year, unlike last, it’s seeming more like a possibility.
“It’s clear that they are going to be a permanent fixture in the McDougall-Hunt neighborhood, which we are really encouraged by. That’s a really big commitment they’ve made,” Maurice Cox, director of planning and development for the City of Detroit, said, explaining that his department is currently working to help the Heidelberg Project create a Strategic Framework — the first step in allowing the city to understand a group’s intentions and how many parcels it needs to execute said vision.
“While the heart and soul of Heidelberg is on Heidelberg Street, they clearly are seeing their future in the larger context that is going to uplift the McDougall neighborhood beyond Heidelberg Street,” Cox continued.
The real estate developments — nearly $800,000 in investments, when including a $122,000 crowdfunding campaign from last year to create an artist residency program — are newsworthy in themselves. Heidelberg is coming home. For the city, this seems to indicate a seriousness on the part of the project.
But more so than a financial ledger, the developments highlight the most recent metamorphosis of a decades-long project as it moves off the shoulders of one man (Guyton) into the hands of the community.
Next year, according to Whitfield, is a “new day.”
A project that for years has sparred with the City of Detroit, may finally be becoming a partner, getting the credibility and acknowledgment that many believe it has long-deserved. A project that saw itself as more than just an art installation — that it was a catalyst for community development — may actually be taken seriously.
“I hate that it took so long, but in retrospect, I can’t even say that anymore,” Whitfield said. “You know why? Heidelberg is a natural evolution. We’re there to help manage the process, but it has always felt much bigger than me and Tyree. Always.”
In the beginning, for many years, the value of the Heidelberg Project was up for debate.
Was the project trash? Was it art? Did it draw visitors and therefore dollars, or did it hinder growth and push away development?
Searching the organization’s early history in the Free Press archives is mystifying.
Art reviews applauding the visionary work of Guyton coincide with news stories documenting a multiyear war between the same man and the city.
Zooming in on the Archer administration gives probably the best bird’s-eye view of this dichotomy.
In 1994, three years after Coleman Young sent bulldozers in the early morning hours to tear down four vacant houses Guyton had spent years decorating — the project rose again.
That summer, Guyton displayed new work. The project was dedicated to Samuel Mackey, his grandfather who helped him start the project but passed away in 1992, and a perhaps unlikely figure: the new mayor, Dennis Archer.
More: Ford partners with artists to make jewelry out of train station graffiti
“Mayor Archer is building bridges to the suburbs, and the Heidelberg Project has been doing it for eight years,” Guyton said at the time, making note of the throngs from around the world that packed into his neighborhood to catch a glimpse of his art.
The relationship appeared to be strong. In 1995, according to a Free Press article, Whitfield sent ideas about redeveloping the area to Archer, who, in turn, asked a vice president at Comerica Bank to pull together a development team.
“The team has conceived a five-year, $4.5-million project to renovate several buildings in the area and turn Heidelberg into a center of creativity where artists live, work and teach others,” a Free Press article from 1996 explained, noting that the group secured a $47,500 grant for a jazz café with the help of the city’s Cultural Affairs Department — a department that no longer exists.
By 1997, the vibe had changed. The project received notice that it would need to be dismantled. It was, according to city officials, holding up development.
“We’ve tried to see this thing nurtured along and see if it can be an engine for economic development,” said Greg Bowens, Archer’s deputy press secretary, reflecting some of the neighbors’ concerns at the time as well. “Clearly, we’re not satisfied with what we see so far. Time is running out.”
Guyton was ordered to disassemble his work. He didn’t.
After several back and forths, in 1999, City Council voted to demo the project.
And while there was always sadness in seeing art vetoed by the city — removed by force — like after Young’s demo eight years earlier, the project found a way to bounce back.
In the following years, Guyton and Whitfield took Heidelberg to Harvard University, Guyton received the Wayne County International Artist Award from the Wayne County Council for Arts, History & Humanities, Heidelberg Projects represented the United States in the Venice Architectural Biennale in Italy, Guyton was selected as a Kresge Artist Fellow, Guyton and Whitfield traveled to Germany to talk about their work. Most notably, the project was left alone — at least by the city.
But fires started in rapid succession in 2013. And Detroit was also changing.
While the project has always conquered adversity, something felt different. By 2015, Guyton had spent nearly half his life working on the project and now it was time to reflect.
“We were really trying to contemplate our future and trying to determine our relevance,” Whitfield said of this period of time. “It was that tough. We had come off the fires in 2013 and 2014, we spent 2015 in deep reflection, trying to determine if our organization could even survive.”
Instead of the tension coming from an outside source, as it usually had in the past, it was now coming from within.
“Tyree didn’t have a vision or know he was going to create something as large as it became,” Whitfield said. “This is one man, a paintbrush and a broom and some children — he got tired of looking at his neighborhood falling apart. It just began to sort of snowball.”
It was on a walk on Belle Isle that year when a solution was recognized: Guyton would dismantle the project he had started in 1986 with Mackey and then-wife, Karen.
“I’m on an elevator, and I’ve taken it from the ground floor up to the very top 30 years later. Now I’m reversing that process, and I’m going to take this elevator down,” Guyton told the Free Press the following year. “I’m gonna stop on every floor to look around and see the beauty of taking it apart, and do it in a methodical way, where it becomes a new form of art.”
Heidelberg 3.0 was born — a plan to move the project away from a Guyton-centered production and open it up to the work of other artists. A collective.
With this new direction also came another goal. The land. A say in what happens next. While Archer’s administration may have believed the Heidelberg Project with its rusted car hoods and dotted trees hindered development, Whitfield maintains it’s quite the opposite. Heidelberg helped put Detroit on the map. It inspired artists, entrepreneurs, business leaders to take risks in the city.
She points to statements made by Corktown businessman Phil Cooley, who has often credited the Heidelberg Project for his decision to open Slows BBQ on Michigan Avenue.
Heidelberg “was something that inspired me as a designer and as a business owner in terms of how to embrace community and how to think creatively,” Cooley, who grew up near Port Huron, told the Freep Press in 2016. “It was definitely more than an object in my mind. Tyree’s work changed my perception of work and how to be a human being. I moved here looking for those same kind of things — culture, diversity and to be a part of a community.”
And here, for Whitfield, was the problem. And a part of what Heidelberg 3.0 was fighting for: acknowledgement.
How could an artist with an HBO documentary about his work, fellowships in Germany, accolades from the most divergent bedfellows — Oprah, John Engler and Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifstyle website GOOP — still struggle to have a place in Detroit?
“What we were fighting for is our right to develop that land that we had been taking care of for 30 years,” Whitfield said. “We want that right. We deserve that right. That’s Tyree’s childhood neighborhood.”
What’s the future?
In 2017, the Heidelberg Project applied to be a community partner with the Detroit Land Bank. It was denied. It applied again. It was denied again.
While Guyton typically avoided the press when warring with the city in the past, Whitfield took another approach. She went to the media.
“Detroit is having a resurrection moment. They used the Heidelberg Project to promote the great things happening in the city and now you’re telling me we can’t be a part of it? That’s wrong,” she said. “And so I spoke out about that. I had to speak out in a big way. And that got conversations rolling.”
The city recognized the project’s value, but didn’t see a tangible vision.
It was almost as if the two parties were speaking different languages. Heidelberg believed the past 30 years should be a testament for the group’s commitment to the neighborhood. The city needed a plan. This is what they’re working on now.
“They’ve slowed things down. They put the vision before land requests and things are now in a much, much stronger place,” said Cox, the city official. He said he and the planning department are supportive of the organization and value its longevity, willingness to evolve and readiness to think differently about the arts and community development.
“They stood the test of time and now a project that was conceived to draw attention to blight, they themselves have found a need to move on because blight doesn’t appear to be the biggest issue now in Detroit,” he said. “The Numbers House is development. It’s community development and so they’re not in the way of development; they are trying to become development that actually lifts up the McDougall-Hunt neighborhood and if they can make this transition I think they will see the city supporting them all the way.”
While this news is, of course, exciting for the Heidelberg Project, there is also energy around the new headquarters and collaboration with Inner State — private purchases that get the ball rolling.
“We’re looking to build a stronger arts community. We are looking at building a stronger foundation for the arts in the city of Detroit. Because you have a lot of artists. You have a lot of arts organizations and they’re doing a lot of great work. They’re contributing to the city being a cool place to be, yet they’re fragmented because they have no base,” Whitfield said.
For Cory, the co-owner of Inner State, it exactly this energy and openness to an artistic vision that has him excited.
Cory, who grew up in Romeo, began coming to Detroit as a teenager in the mid-1990s and was attracted early to the Heidelberg Project. When he began painting houses in the suburbs for work, he would bring any extra paint he got his hands on to the project as a donation.
It wasn’t until after his art gallery moved downtown in 2013 that he approached Guyton more formally. They collaborated on shows in 2014 and 2016. They worked well together. So well that in 2017 they decided to go in on the Beaufait building. Cory sold his three-story brick building in Eastern Market for $1.2 million and two months later made the move. He wanted to be as close to Guyton, Whitfield, Heidelberg and the energy that encapsulated all three.
“I feel this energy that radiates from the ground at Heidelberg Project. It’s unlike any other energy,” Cory said, explaining that he had his ah-ha moment about the vibe, and its power while visiting Jerusalem. The energy that he felt at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, marking the site where Jesus was crucified, was the same as he felt in Detroit when at the Heidelberg Project.
“It’s a focused energy from people all over the world having positive thoughts and thinking about it. Projecting that energy to that space,” he said. “The Heidelberg has that energy because what it does and what it means.”
In October, the project is hosting 360-Degree Heidelberg, a conference exploring the project’s 32-year history, but also what can come next. It will be a time to reflect on the work Guyton started, and what can be possible if the project’s work is recognized in the moment, rather than in hindsight.
“Tyree has started many trends that have been followed. In 1986, he was repurposing materials before that became popular. He was talking about incorporating art into a community as a catalyst for economic development,” Whitfield said. “But he’s just a homeboy from the community, so how can his ideas be right? And that’s the big mistake that many people have made in thinking that only good ideas can come from white men.”
Contact Allie Gross: [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @Allie_Elisabeth.
- No Matter What the Project, Getting Started is the Key
- Neighborhood Associations - 5 Ways to Fund Yours
- Science Fair Projects - Finding the Right Topic For a Winning Science Project
- Planning a Remodeling Project
- Cut Costs With Effective Project Management
- The Looming Battle Over GM's Headquarters
- Detroit River
- Buy a House in the Neighborhood You Love
- Things to Do in Detroit
- Can the Detroit Red Wings Go Back-To-Back? Three Keys to Another Stanley Cup Run