TDR: The Drama Review 45.4 (2001) 64-93
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Turning the Neighborhood Inside Out
Imagining a New Detroit in Tyree Guyton's Heidelberg Project
Wendy S. Walters
In some senses, the city is like a stage, and the individual is an actor in a drama. By being such an actor, the individual gets a better sense of what the drama is about.
--City of Detroit, Planning Department (1985:2)
Let the future begin.
--Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer (in DeHaven 1998)
it's just tyree & grandpop out there
on Heidelberg Street
in the middle of the night
turning their neighborhood inside out
--John Sinclair (1990:14)
Artist Tyree Guyton has said of the rapidly deteriorating houses on Heidelberg Street: "You'll think I'm crazy [...] but the houses began speaking to me. [...] Things were going down. You know, we're taught in school to look at problems and think of solutions. This was my solution" (in Beardsley 1999:5). Guyton claims that his painting and decorating of abandoned houses on the 3600 block of Heidelberg Street initially began as "protest art" against the decline of his eastside Detroit neighborhood. 1 In its 13 controversial years of existence, the Heidelberg Project has also become a performance of history--a didactic representation of past public events and human affairs that makes material the intricacies of human experience typically not accounted for in conventional history or folklore. The Project visually captures the history of a residential community coming undone. Guyton's houses:
literally vomit forth the physical elements of domestic history; furniture, dolls, television sets, signs, toilets, enema bottles, beds, tires, baby buggies come cascading out doors and windows and through holes in the roof, [End Page 64] flowing down the outside walls and collecting in great heaps on the lawn, so that the whole world looks like some kind of man-made lava flow. The magma of discarded lives: these visible tokens of a humiliated history. (Herron 1993:199)
This spewing forth is not just about discarding the past; it is a reclamation of Detroit's recent history and a transformation of it into something that has value in the current world.
As an arena in which debates about the proper path to Detroit's next renaissance have been waged, the Heidelberg Project raises questions about what the city's future should look like:
Heidelberg is, among other things, a spectacle, something that says, "look at me." It is a celebration that can be "heard" for miles in every direction (as evidenced by the attention of tourists, media, and the city council). On the most fundamental level, it seems to be saying, "we are here; we exist" and thus serves as an answer to those who construct Detroit as a culturally empty space, as presently meaningless and worthless. (Sheridan 1999:346)
The "spectacle" of the Heidelberg Project is more than an acknowledgment that people still live in the city. While it serves as a visual record of the city's recent painful past, the Heidelberg Project illustrates the transformational power that is present in the community in both a real and imaginary sense.
While much of the city lacks a strong sense of place, other than that which is defined by industry, the Heidelberg Project is as distinct a place as the city could hope to have. It is a neighborhood block with vacant lots and abandoned houses that are highly visible--they are painted in bright colors and adorned with sculpture. On Heidelberg Street, discarded objects embody optimism, memory, and hope for the area. Instead of ignoring the abandoned buildings, as is done in so many parts of the city, the Heidelberg Project marks their significance through Guyton's site-specific craftsmanship. The Project acts out the process of community regenesis in a blighted area of the city that offers few discernable signs of social and economic growth.
In this essay I explore Guyton's vision for the future of the Heidelberg neighborhood where making art acts as the primary method for asserting...