BY: M. TOMOSKI
As the crowds emerge from Comerica Park and move onto Woodward Ave. clad in orange and blue they pour out of the city and back to the suburbs leaving behind the rusted arteries of what was once the great steel heart of America. It’s not often that an iconic city rises and falls in a way that allows a few generations to witness the ebb and flow of its lifespan. The story of Detroit is the kind of tragedy that fiction hopes to capture and even then, bound only by imagination, it may still fall short of the real thing.
“This was the home of the American dream,” says Matthew Eaton of the Library Street Collective, a gallery for artists who develop their craft in public spaces. Detroit was the birth place of the auto industry and the engine of the middle class for much of the 20th century. “From industrial design and engineering to Motown and techno and everything in between, people have been creating in many different ways here for decades.”
Today the Motor City has lost over a quarter of its population and makes headlines across the world as a warning to blue collar towns everywhere that each skyward leap brings with it the promise of a fall.
But, among its shattered windows and charred remains Detroit is home to a unique form of pride and optimism that screams, “the dream doesn’t die here!” There is a determination among those who remain in the city that is reflected in its vibrant art scene. Detroit is a place where the struggles of its people are literally painted on the walls.
On a once forgotten road that sprouts eastward from Gratiot Ave. lies the Heidelberg Project, an open air art exhibit spanning an entire block on the city’s east side. Its painted sidewalks lead passersby through streets bursting with colour. Houses and vacant lots on every corner have been transformed into works of art. The project is the vision of local artist Tyree Guyton. Having grown up on Heidelberg Street, Guyton refused to let his beloved neighbourhood slip into the urban blight that has devoured the city, one block at a time, for decades.
The Heidelberg project brings colour back into abandon houses along Heidelberg Street.
Soon to enter its 30th year the project hosts 275,000 visitors annually, raises millions for local neighbourhoods, and hopes to nurture the creativity of the city’s youth.
Jenenne Whitfield, executive director of the project, left a banking career in 1993 for an opportunity to help. She described her first encounter with the project as a life changing turn down a side street that gave her the inspiration to leave a vacant desk in the financial industry and join Guyton on his mission.
Much of the art displayed on Heidelberg Street is made from found or salvaged objects and carries a message of the importance of community and environmental awareness. “In 1996 no one was talking about recycling or repurposing.” Whitfield remembers, “That was a concept that Tyree introduced…he used what was available to make an important and profound statement.” That statement is that art can act as a vehicle for a city’s revival. A driving force behind a community to inspire change. “Art is like a social practice, art is changing lives…art is demonstrating how it can be an economic engine.”
Art can act as a vehicle for a city’s revival.
Yet the reality of living in a gutted metropolis that was once home to two million is that some of its most terrifying rumours are true. Among these truths is that arson, in the aftermath of the recession, has spread through the city like a California wildfire. Nine of the Heidelberg Project’s installations have been set ablaze since 2013, in some cases levelling whole houses. But none of this seems to have discouraged Guyton and his team. In fact, new pieces and memorials have sprouted from the ruins.
Nine of the Heidelberg Project’s installations have been set ablaze since 2013, in some cases levelling whole houses.
“The Heidelberg Project has been energized by Tyree Guyton for 30 years,” Whitfield says, “by the love that he has for humanity and for the city.” The obstacles the project has faced over the years—including calls from city officials for its demolition—have provided Guyton with an opportunity to prove the power of his message, and the image of Detroit as the Renaissance City. “The Heidelberg Project is a statement. Every time it’s come back from a demolition or a fire, it’s demonstrating the power of resilience, the power of the city, and of the people.”
Tyree Guyton and the kids of Heidelberg celebrating the beginning of a tradition.
This message has spread over time. In a style that is characteristic of the spirit of Detroit, artists and businesses have taken the city’s revival into their own hands.
“The artists and creatives are the ones finding new and innovative ways to compete on the world stage and start a dialogue with new industries and ideas,” Matthew Eaton of the Library Street Collective explains.
In 2013 the Masonic Temple Theatre was saved from foreclosure by musician Jack White, who grew up in Mexican Town on the city’s west side. A year later, the Detroit Institute of Arts’ priceless collection was rescued from bankruptcy by private donors and the State of Michigan.
The entire city has mobilized to protect its creative identity and now street art has joined the long list of art forms to which Detroit is lending its innovative soul. As reported by the Detroit Free Press, the city’s Eastern Market Corp. and 1xRUN, a local publisher and gallery operator, will host the first Murals in the Market festival in September of 2015. The event will feature artists from around the world and transform the city into an open air art gallery.
The entire city has mobilized to protect its creative identity and now street art has joined the long list of art forms to which Detroit is lending its innovative soul.
This is a concept that has already begun to take shape. In collaboration with the Library Street Collective, Shepard Fairey, the artist famous for founding OBEY and designing the Obama “HOPE” poster, completed his largest mural yet, an 18 story red goliath commemorating peace and justice, towering over the downtown area. He has also created a few movable pieces as part of the LSC’s outdoor project “Public Matter.”
While his work has been well received by Detroiters, Fairey was recently arrested for tagging 14 buildings around the city with stickers of his trademark “OBEY” logo. He is currently being held on a $75,000 bond and could face up to five years in prison.
Though he recognizes the illegality of Fairey’s actions, Eaton sympathizes with his fellow artist, noting that the purpose of art should be to challenge conventional norms and to fuel the revolutionary ideas that inspire change. “It says a lot…when the mayor at one moment is celebrating the heroic actions of Diego Rivera, who used capitalist dollars to forward a communist agenda, while Shepard does the same thing but with a humanitarian agenda and is treated like a hardcore criminal.”
After decades of mismanagement, it’s become clear that the drive behind Detroit’s revival comes from its residents. “The people who have lived, loved and laid down roots here for generations are the one and only reason you need to visit in my opinion.” Says Eaton. “The fog of failure has been kept at bay by the sheer will and perseverance of its people for so long that you can’t help but to be curious and fascinated.”
To hear Detroiters describe their city would give anyone the feeling that the whole thing could go up in blaze and, when it was all said and done, there would still be someone left to make something of the ashes.
For those who stood by through its toughest times, Detroit is very much like the art it has created. It’s an idea that can never be charred or buried or made ugly by the passage of time. They are a people who embrace chaos and learn to adapt, because anything else would require an unfamiliar lack of will. It would mean total surrender.