Tyree Guyton grew up in a Detroit that was still a thriving city, and his house was in a growing, middle-class neighborhood. But in 1967, when Tyree was 12, he witnessed the destructive effects of the 1967 Detroit riots, the result of social unrest over discrimination sparked by a police raid on a bar which left 43 dead and 467 injured.
When Tyree returned to the same neighborhood again as an adult after serving in the Army, things had only gotten worse. In his words, his neighborhood, and Detroit in general, looked as if “a bomb went off.”
Started in 1986, Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project was his attempt to reclaim an area that had become so run-down and unsafe that people were afraid to walk through the area, even during the day time. Using paint, refuse from the neighborhood, and a small army of local kids, Tyree began transforming abandoned houses into massive works of art.
It has been a difficult road, and despite the project’s having been featured everywhere from Oprah to the Today show and considered a Detroit landmark, it was twice demolished by the city, in 1991 and 1999. Tyree, however, was undaunted and simply began anew each time. Eventually, the Wayne County Circuit Court ruled that the Heidelberg Project was protected under the 1st Amendment.
The project occupies the entire block and is made up of some 22 individual art projects. Among the most significant are the “Dotty Wotty House,” “Noah’s Ark,” and “Faces in the Hood,” portaits painted on car hoods set into the ground. Today, the project is known throughout the world and receives over 200,000 visitors a year. It was even elected to represent the United States in the 2008 Venice Architecture Biennale.
In 2009, Tyree received an honorary Doctorate of Fine Art from the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, which he attended for several years in the 1980s, before beginning the Heidelberg Project. In 2010, he was recognized by Wayne State University with a Community Leadership Award. In addition to the engaging artistic landscape, the Heidelberg Project is an established 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, designed to improve lives and neighborhoods through art.
In 2013, part of the Heidelberg Project was burned to the ground in a fire suspected to be arson. Another arson in November took down another house. In all, five houses were burned down by the end of the year. Additionally, questions have been raised about unpaid taxes and foreclosures on the property.
In March of 2014, a sixth house was burned to the ground.
Update August 2016: The artist Tyree Guyton said he plans to dismantle the iconic art installation over the next two years. He would not elaborate on why or what comes next. But given this place has had such a tough time with arson of late, this might be the start of something new. Perhaps Guyton has a plan to build something new, amazing (and possibly fireproof) up his sleeve.
We explored Heidelberg Project on Obscura Day - March 20th, 2010. Photos, stories and more here