The Heidelberg Project

The famous Polka Dot House still standing with the decorated tree beside it

The famous Polka Dot House still standing with the decorated tree beside it

Yesterday, my friend Adele and I visited The Heidelberg Project in Detroit. Situated in one of the most economically depressed neighbourhoods in the United States, I wasn’t prepared for the impact it would have on me. Before I talk more about it, here’s a brief description from their website:

The Heidelberg Project is art, energy, and community. It’s an open-air art environment in the heart of an urban community on Detroit’s East Side. Tyree Guyton, founder and artistic director, uses everyday, discarded objects to create a two block area full of color, symbolism, and intrigue. Now in its 27th year, the Heidelberg Project is recognized around the world as a demonstration of the power of creativity to transform lives.

The Heidelberg Project offers a forum for ideas, a seed of hope, and a bright vision for the future. It’s about taking a stand to save forgotten neighborhoods. It’s about helping people think outside the box and it’s about offering solutions. It’s about healing communities through art – and it’s working!

The Heidelberg Project

Upon arrival, I was overwhelmed with what initially looked like undecipherable clutter. The first thing that struck me was the sheer number shoes. They were part of almost every installation – thousands of shoes. The second thing I noticed was the clocks strewn about from one end of the project to the other, many with their numbers out of order. The piece that hit me the hardest was the old oven full of crusty shoes. It was positively unsettling, and immediately brought to mind Auschwitz and the horrors that happened there. Obviously there is no comparison, but what happened to Detroit is a colossal human tragedy.

One of the more disturbing pieces I saw that day

One of the more disturbing pieces I saw that day

Anyway, it took a while to absorb what I was seeing – to make sense of it and the intensity of its message. In fact it didn’t fully sink in until after I got home. On the surface, the art in that two-block stretch appears whimsical, decorative, and chaotic all at the same time. But what about all those shoes? At the very least, they are poignant reminders of the decimation of Detroit’s population (from nearly 2 million down to its current 700,000). Miles and miles of once vibrant neighbourhoods are now largely abandoned, burned out, and forgotten. Those shoes are testimony that people – lots of people – lived, loved, and worked there at one time. Which brings us to the clocks.

A mound of shoes crowned by a child's riding horse and a doll astride it

A mound of shoes crowned by a child’s riding horse and a doll astride it

Clocks and other installations on an empty lot on Heidelberg Street

Clocks and other installations on an empty lot on Heidelberg Street

The references to time are inescapable, and multiple interpretations are possible. Combined with the shoes, the deliberate juxtaposition suggests a symbolic and deeper reading. Clichéd expressions come to mind. Time stands still. We’re out of time. The clock is ticking. Time is running out. The times they are a changing. Time on your hands. There’s no time like the present. All in due time. Time heals all. We can each draw our own conclusions – HP is certainly a thought-provoking place.

A memorial to all the people who lived, loved, and worked in Detroit

A memorial to all the people who lived, loved, and worked in Detroit

Above all, The Heidelberg Project is about optimism and taking pride and ownership of your environment, especially when it is suffering under dire and desperate circumstances completely out of your control. Despite the controversies and criticism it receives – many refer to it as nothing more than piles of junk and trash – what I saw there is undeniably powerful. Sadly, HP faces many challenges. Apparently, five of the eight principle art houses have been destroyed by arsonists since 2013. Their charred remains have been turned into what can only be described as shrines to what once was. Nevertheless, the founders and volunteers invested in this project seem to take it as it comes and continue to work with what they have.

I'm guessing that the house foundation where the cross is is where the art house covered in vinyl albums once stood - another casualty of arson

I’m guessing that the house foundation where the cross is is where the art house covered in vinyl albums once stood – another casualty of arson

The remains of one of the torched art houses now converted into a shrine

The remains of one of the torched art houses now converted into a shrine

A final word about Detroit – despite its history and current difficulties, the city is truly inspiring. Countless entrepreneurial pop-up businesses and grassroots community efforts are infusing the city with fresh vitality. People are relying less on the government and more on each other to improve the quality of their own lives. Adele and I were overwhelmed by the friendliness we encountered everywhere – first at the HP project; then near the Eastern Market searching for the Canadian Residency on Gratiot where renowned Canadian artist, Suzy Lake, is currently working; then in the Wayne State University area looking for the Motor City Brewing Works (a restaurant that Suzy recommended), and finally downtown while looking for the historic Guardian Building! People were friendly and generous.

I was born in Detroit, and lived there for the first five and a half years of my life. Of the many places I’ve lived in the past fifty years, although some were great, none have truly felt like “my place.” I saw a post on Facebook the other day that said something to the effect of, “Home is where your story began.” So… like an imprinted gosling, I’ve finally found my way back home, and it feels right. (I have to live in Detroit’s sister city, Windsor, for now, but it’s close enough for me.)

The Heidelberg Project attracts 50,000 visitors per year, including a young French couple from Switzerland that we met there yesterday. This kind of attention is very positive because it brings much needed tourist dollars to the financially ailing city.

I consent to the use of my Heidelberg Project photos by the Heidelberg Project for promotional and educational purposes. Just give me a heads up guys.

About Michelle LaRiviere

Michelle is a multidisciplinary artist, writer, and Reiki Master currently based in Windsor, Ontario. She has exhibited internationally, and her practice includes traditional as well as digital media. Michelle has a background in education and is a member of the Ontario College of Teachers. Her long-time interest in holistic healing led to her recent certifications in Reiki and AromaTouch Technique massage.
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2 Responses to The Heidelberg Project

  1. I’m not that much of a internet reader to be honest but your blogs really nice, keep it up! I’ll go ahead and bookmark your website to come back down the road. All the best

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