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How a Simple Arts Project Saved One Detroit Community

I’m not going to pretend that I understood the entire scope of the Heidelberg Project when I visited last month. I noticed recurring themes, I noticed all the rabbits (because of my daughter’s lovey), I noticed the Mickey and Minnie plush toys, and I noticed the doll parts — because doll parts have always been outrageously creepy to me. There were a few blatant political statements, some non-denominational religious symbolism and a lot of dots.

What I do understand is the idea behind the Heidelberg Project: taking something that people think is hopeless (in this case a neighborhood) and transforming it with art. Every city and state in America has a place that has been made a little better because of art, and the Heidelberg project is one of those places in Detroit, Michigan —a city many people have all but given up on over the last few decades. As I was brushing up on my Heidelberg knowledge, I read that one of the main installments, the OJ house, was burned to the ground October 5, 2013. The same house that was torched (on purpose) back in May of 2013. What the arsonist had against this house, I’m not sure anyone will ever know, but I know from visiting the Heidelberg Project that something will literally come from the ashes, just as it did after the fire in 2013.

Here’s a few shots from my visit to the Heidelberg Project in September, 2013:

  • The Heidelberg Project 1 of 20
    Heidelberg-2766.jpg (20 documents, 20 total pages)

    So here's where I explain why I was a terrible student during my Heidelberg tour, I had a camera and EVERYTHING was begging me to take pictures of it. Every little corner was filled with something more interesting than the last corner, which led me to not paying much attention to our guide. (Sorry. F for attention.)

  • Lisa Marie 2 of 20
    Heidelberg-2758.jpg (20 documents, 20 total pages)

    Our loyal and passionate guide (and contributing artistl!) Lisa Marie. She understands the Heidelberg project in ways many of us never will.

  • Visitor’s Center 3 of 20
    Heidelberg-2767.jpg (20 documents, 20 total pages)

    The Heidelberg project was started in 1986 by Tyree Guyton as a way to bring his community together and revitalize his childhood neighborhood after it gradually started to fall apart in the late '60s.

  • Heidelberg Host 4 of 20
    Heidelberg-2773.jpg (20 documents, 20 total pages)

    Children, neighbors, visitors, artists, students, and Tyree himself still contribute to the ever evolving landscape as the outdoor space is changed by weather, politics, and acts of man (like the most recent fire). This here is one of the charming and dedicated staff of the project.

  • Numbers House 5 of 20
    Heidelberg-2770.jpg (20 documents, 20 total pages)

    The visitor's center is housed in what is known as 'The Numbers House.' Hundreds of shoes hang from the fences outside. I missed the meaning (AGAIN SO SORRY) because I was so enchanted by how visually interesting they were.

  • Packing Peanuts 6 of 20
    Heidelberg-144415.jpg (20 documents, 20 total pages)

    Across the street from the visitor's center is another installment by Tim Burke using these packing 'peanuts.' Refuse from the formerly bustling (and now recovering) auto industry. Also? Doll part.

  • Motor City Lot 7 of 20
    Heidelberg-2785.jpg (20 documents, 20 total pages)

    Across from the main house is a huge expanse of lawn with several installments on it. The project started with Guyton painting jellybean-sized dots on the outside of several houses, the dots grew (literally and figuratively), the community became involved and more and more art has been added since.

  • Creation 8 of 20
    Heidelberg-2804.jpg (20 documents, 20 total pages)

    This piece had something very profound to do with creation, but again, I was distracted by everything else there was to see.

  • Noah’s Ark 9 of 20
    Heidelberg-2809.jpg (20 documents, 20 total pages)

    This piece had to do with child abuse, and how everyone hurt by it can gather together and hold onto each other. Just as it's hard to think of someone hurting a little kid, it's hard to imagine all these little animals, meant to be loved tossed out into the elements.

  • A Bunny 10 of 20
    Heidelberg-2787.jpg (20 documents, 20 total pages)

    As I said, I noticed all the bunnies because my toddler's existence revolves around hers.

  • A Doll and Others 11 of 20
    Heidelberg-2790.jpg (20 documents, 20 total pages)

    Lots of crucifixions of lots of different creatures. I first noticed the Mickey in this collection because I'm just so used to seeing Mickey fresh, clean, and tidy around my house and at Disney properties.

  • Down Doll 12 of 20
    Heidelberg-2800.jpg (20 documents, 20 total pages)

    More doll parts. As they were all over, I wonder if every single one had a specific meaning or if the dolls were a collective statement. Would have been nice if I could have thought of that question while I was there. Does anyone know the answer?

  • Shopping Carts 13 of 20
    Heidelberg-144733.jpg (20 documents, 20 total pages)

    High above the Dotty Wotty house are these shopping carts. They look like they ended up there after a huge storm. Art is up high and down low all over at The Heidelberg Project.

  • Side of the OJ House 14 of 20
    heidelbergOJ

    This was one half of one side of the Obstruction of Justice (or OJ) House. These are some of the additions and found objects added to the house after the May, 2013 fire. This entire wall was burned down in the October, 2013 fire.
    Sad.

  • Barbie in the OJ House 15 of 20
    Heidelberg-2818.jpg (20 documents, 20 total pages)

    This was the other side of the OJ house, where the wall had come down almost completely in May. It is all gone now.

  • Doll Outside the OJ House 16 of 20
    Heidelberg-2821.jpg (20 documents, 20 total pages)

    This doll was placed in the front of the OJ house, it's so surprising to me that by just taking away one simple feature it changes the entire mood of a toy.

  • Sundial 17 of 20
    Heidelberg-2832.jpg (20 documents, 20 total pages)

    On one corner is a fully functioning sundial made of found and upcycled bricks and bottles.

  • Party Animal House 18 of 20
    Heidelberg-2822.jpg (20 documents, 20 total pages)

    This is an ever-evolving house, as some animals are destroyed by weather and the elements, new ones, both donated and found, are added to the exterior (and some interiors) of the Part Animal House.

  • Fresh Bunny 19 of 20
    Heidelberg-2845.jpg (20 documents, 20 total pages)

    Lisa Marie said it was always hard to staple or nail a new animal to the Party Animal House. Knowing how attached Vivi is to bunny I would have a hard time ever doing anything to hurt him. I don't care if he's just a stuffy to the rest of the world — he's everything to Vivi.

  • Animal House Windows 20 of 20
    Heidelberg-2848.jpg (20 documents, 20 total pages)

    This house is always changing, from the animals to the broken windows and it also changes as the sun hits it throughout the day. Certainly not anything I would have ever expected to see driving down a neighborhood street in Detroit.

Find out more about The Heidelberg Project and how you can help here.

Find more of Casey’s writing on her blog moosh in indy or her Babble Voices site Shutterlovely. She’s also available on twitter, facebook, flickr and Instagram. If you can’t find her any of those places? Check the couch, she’s probably taking a nap.

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