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Ear to the Ground

Arson Fires Destroying Detroit’s Famed Heidelberg Project

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Posted on Dec 10, 2013
jbcurio (CC BY 2.0)

Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project in Detroit, MI.

Now someone is burning the dreams.

For more than a quarter-century, Detroit’s Heidelberg Project has drawn viewers from around the world to its odd blend of whimsy and social commentary affixed to trees, vacant lots and houses on the city’s battered east side. The product of street artist Tyree Guyton, the Heidelberg Project has transformed a nondescript Detroit street into something of an interactive, two-block open-air art museum, drawing the ire of mayors (Coleman A. Young) and a few neighbors while mesmerizing countless art aficionados.

And now someone is slowly, and methodically, burning it down.

Heidelberg’s core is a series of seven houses that over the years were decorated with a wide range of found materials. Since May, four of the houses and a smaller out building have been torched by an arsonist or arsonists in eight separate fires. The most recent—the “Clock House,” so named because of the timepieces that covered it—was destroyed late Sunday.

Amid the ashes are questions. Who would want to destroy both public art and a persistent draw of tourists? Are the arsons calculated or the acts of the mentally ill? And most important—can Heidelberg survive?

In some ways, the fight between the artist and the arsonist says more about the struggle for Detroit’s future than the city’s recent bankruptcy filing. What will persevere—hope or self-destruction? From the Detroit Free Press:

Neighbor Gregory Robinson, 54, who lives on Ludden, has walked his dog Baby past the Heidelberg homes for years. He said the fires have taken away Heidelberg’s spark.

“It was nice before, but with the fires…” he said, trailing off. “I don’t know what he’s going to do. It’s not exciting anymore. You would think after so long, they’d have security or something.”

Tyree Guyton, who created the project in 1986 as a way to reclaim his old neighborhood, was at the installation Sunday night. He declined to comment as smoke poured from the “Clock House.”

Tony Alfaro, senior project manager for Detroit-based Streamline Electric, said Guyton was back at the site early Monday. Alfaro was hired to inspect the “Numbers House,” one of the remaining main structures, to determine where to install additional security lighting.

“It’s a tragedy,” Alfaro said. “Hopefully, it doesn’t take anyone’s life.”

Supporters, who say they believe they know who is responsible (which raises the question of why no one has been arrested and the fires continue), are in the midst of a campaign through Indiegogo hoping to raise $50,000 to bolster a nightly patrol, improve nighttime lighting and add surveillance cameras with remote monitoring. The campaign ends Dec. 20.

One of the destroyed houses was the reported boyhood home of singer Wilson Pickett, but the more notable losses have been to the art itself—in the same city in which municipal bankruptcy threatens the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Yet Guyton has been making art even of the ashes. From The Detroit News:

With its exaggerated symbolism, it’s a battle worthy of a comic book: An artist affirming life with messages promoting peace, understanding and humanity is pitted against an unseen villain using a can of fire accelerant to douse messages of hope. It’s epic and all too real.

On one lot, Guyton has erected a Stonehenge structure out of charred beams, planted like bean stalks in the dirt.

—Posted by Scott Martelle.



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