Detroit seeks to dismantle ‘junk’ art project

Thursday, October 1, 1998

When artist Tyree Guyton first walked along Heidelberg Street in Detroit's poverty-stricken east side in 1986, he said he didn't see a neighborhood. He saw a war zone.

Abandoned houses and unkempt yards filled the city block. Few people walked the streets or even sat on their porches. Trash and cast-off appliances, toys and car parts filled the streets.

“We're talking about Vietnam in the city. It was a war here,” Guyton said. “We're talking about a block that was dead, and the people in the neighborhood [were] a reflection of that.”

Over the next 12 years, Guyton turned the entire block into a massive artistic statement about poverty. The block and its eight houses, now part of the Heidelberg Project, are decorated with polka dots, old shoes and bright-colored appliances, car parts and discarded toys.

“We're talking about a neighborhood that is very colorful now,” Guyton said. “And people come from as far off as Russia and Japan to see this place.”

But city officials don't see a colorful neighborhood. Not only do they still see trash — Guyton incorporates it into his work — but they see a rat-infested junk yard that needs to be demolished to make way for more housing.

The Heidelberg Project rests on a large city block that once held as many as 30 homes. Today, the block has only 8 houses and a smattering of city-owned and privately owned vacant lots. Guyton began the project in 1986, and continued through the 1990s with the blessing of mayors and city council members.

But city officials now warn Guyton that they will bulldoze the project if he doesn't dismantle it first. Heidelberg Project organizers and Guyton have responded with a lawsuit.

“We're maintaining in the lawsuit that the artist has secured ownership of all of the land,” said Jenenne Whitfield, the project's executive director. “The sad fact is the city doesn't know what it owns because [the property is] so old.”

Last month, attorneys for the Heidelberg Project obtained a temporary restraining order preventing the city from bulldozing the project at least until a court hearing, scheduled for tomorrow. Attorney Greg Siwak said he hopes to secure an injunction until the court reaches a decision in Guyton v. City of Detroit.

Calls to Mayor Dennis Archer's office were not returned.

City officials contend that Guyton backed out of an agreement to dismantle the project by Aug. 24. But Guyton said he offered the agreement only if city officials arranged another location for the project, which is to undergo a $3.5 million expansion to add a museum, a children's art center and an artist colony.

But Whitfield said the city did nothing except to tear down a third of the project. The Heidelberg Project, which has a guestbook packed with 200,000 signatures from visitors from 75 countries, has become the city's third largest tourist attraction.

“All of these facts as well as the overwhelming support from neighborhood residents, citizens of Detroit and people all over the world contributed to the artist saying, 'We can't do this,'” Whitfield said.

As for the health concerns, Whitfield said the claims are unfounded, noting that city inspectors have found no evidence of rat infestation. She said one inspector said the city would have to come back after a winter snow to see if the animals left any footprints.

“They've been very vague about health and safety issues,” Siwak said. “They've run a litany of health officials through the project on some concerns of rats and mosquitoes. To date, there has been no evidence of rats or roaches or vermin. The simple fact is, it's a very clean street.”

Project organizers said the city is unfairly targeting their site when they can clear nearby lots where as many as 58 burnt-out and abandoned buildings sit.

“If this is an eyesore,” Guyton asked, “then what do you call those burned out structures?”

Whitfield said the reason the city can consider new housing in the east side is because “the project has made neighborhood safe and attractive again.”

Guyton noted that when city officials gave Vice President Al Gore a recent tour through the city, they stopped at the Heidelberg Project to show him around.

“They use it use it as cultural icon when it serves their purposes. But they use it as politics when it serves that purpose,” Guyton said. “In essence, they are speaking out of both sides of their mouths.”

Guyton said he doesn't understand why some of the same officials who criticize his work had, in the past, presented him with accolades and resolutions, including Michiganian of the Year and Michigan Artist of the Year.

“They said it was art. Now they say it's junk,” Guyton said. “I was upset at first. But now I'm ready to fight.”