Just down Gratiot Ave. on the east side of Detroit, sits Heidelberg Street. Situated in Detroit’s McDougall-Hunt neighborhood, the street was known as a predominately black neighborhood home to automobile and manufacturing workers following World War II. Like many of its counterparts, the neighborhood fell victim to Detroit’s 1967 riots, transforming from a bustling neighborhood to a neighborhood of empty streets, crumbling houses, and blight.
To this day, much of the area in McDougall-Hunt remains uninhabited, but to many’s surprise it now sees about 200,000 visitors a year. That is thanks to Tyree Guyton and his Heidelberg Project.
The Heidelberg Project is an open-air art environment created by Tyree Guyton in 1986. Tyree started the project after returning to the street he grew up on and finding it had become subject to drugs and violence. Being a newer resident of the city, it wasn’t until recent that I had heard about the Heidelberg Project and it wasn’t until a month ago that I actually visited it.
As I approached the street, located in the middle of a somewhat vacant neighborhood, my eyes were suddenly greeted by bright colors, signs, and various other objects all positioned to create Tyree’s perfectly imperfect public art installation. Having done my research prior to my visit, I was familiar with the name Tyee Guyton, but thought there was absolutely no idea that I might run into him on Heidelberg Street.
Then, as I got out of my car, I noticed an inconspicuous man sitting on the edge of the sidewalk fumbling around with a couple items in his hands.
He was dressed in a hoodie and jeans, with a mask covering his face. As I approached, he got up from the curb and went to place the object he had been holding in the exhibit.
Curious at this point I asked, “Are you Tyree Guyton?”
“Maybe,” he answered. “Is this your first time here?”
We continued to talk for a couple minutes and he had mentioned that he grew up on this very street, in a polka dotted house sitting right behind us. He explained that he no longer lived there, but he visits the street often to reminisce on his childhood.
Again, I asked, “So are you, Tyree?”
And again, he responded with, “Maybe.”
Still unsure if I had just bumped into the creator of this public art masterpiece, I continued to walk through the exhibit. The exhibit, which expanded across the entire street, is full of miscellaneous items Tyree had found in the neighborhood and repurposed into art. This has caused for some backlash by neighbors and the city since Tyree first created it in 1986.
Many neighbors have claimed that the exhibit is nothing more than a form of hoarding and in response the city has destroyed portions of the project multiple times throughout 1989 – 1994. Then in 2013 and 2014, the exhibit fell victim to arson, which destroyed two of the homes that were part of the installation. Tyree, however, continued creating.
Now, Heidelberg Street sees thousands of visitors a year and Tyree has accomplished something not many of us could. He has effectively brought people from across the state to an area that formerly was desecrated to see repurposed items structured into art for viewing to help rebuild his community.
Upon getting in my car to leave, I promptly searched “images of Tyree Guyton” in my phone and sure enough, I was met with that same familiar smile I saw not too long ago on that very street.
Anna Robb is a photographer and content creator for Rock Ventures and Opportunity Detroit. Check out Anna Robb on Instagram at @AnnaRobbxo.