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From Trash to Treasure: Detroit's Sprawling Art Show

Tyree Guyton is on a quest to resurrect a forgotten neighborhood. Over the decades his work has turned everyday waste – phones, vinyl records, TVs and more – into art. Visitors love it, but the locals have mixed feelings.

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The Dotty Wotty House is the childhood home of Tyree Guyton, creator of the Heidelberg project.
(Photos by David Kidd)
It’s hard to miss Tyree Guyton’s family home at 3600 Heidelberg Street on Detroit’s east side. It’s the big white one covered with colorful polka dots. The dot theme continues over the sidewalk, past an old record player and out onto the street. A motorbike, bicycle and tricycle are perched on a nearby tree stump. Everywhere there are car doors, children’s toys, grocery carts and broken lawnmowers. Across the street, a mountain of shoes, a boatload of stuffed animals and rows of televisions and telephones are arranged just so by the artist, Tyree Guyton. He calls his creation the Heidelberg Project.

Thirty-five years ago, Guyton returned to his childhood neighborhood to find trash-strewn vacant lots, abandoned houses, drugs, violence and entrenched poverty. With the help of his grandfather and neighborhood kids, he began to clean up the area, collecting and repurposing discarded items and debris into works of art. It was a way to put a spotlight on a culture of waste, reclaim his neighborhood and bring attention to a part of the city sorely in need of help.

Splashed with color, Guyton’s grandfather’s big white house was the first to be used as a canvas. Over the years, several more would follow. The “Party Animal House” was festooned with stuffed animals. Nearby, the “House of Soul” was decorated with hundreds of vinyl record albums. Covering two blocks, the Heidelberg Project has lured gawkers and professional art aficionados alike, earning praise from some and derision from others.

Not universally appreciated, Guyton’s creation has survived several attacks over the years, from both arsonists and city officials. Thought to be an eyesore and embarrassment to a city in decline, the local government moved in to demolish houses that were part of the installation, once in 1989 and again two years later. In November of 2013, the House of Soul was the first of several to be burned to the ground over the next two years. In spite of increased security and surveillance, the latest attack came two years ago. No one has been charged.

In spite of everything, Tyree Guyton has refused to give up. According to the guest book and before the pandemic, 150,000 visitors from 144 countries were coming to see his artwork every year, making the Heidelberg Project the third-most-visited cultural attraction in Detroit.

In 2016, Guyton announced the beginning of Heidelberg 3.0, a reimagining of his sprawling outdoor artwork. A number of his pieces will be removed, some headed to the dumpster, some to museums where they will be safe. One man’s creation will evolve into a community of artists who live and work in the remaining houses. Having successfully reclaimed a forgotten few blocks in a hollowed out city, the Heidelberg Project will be at the center of whatever comes next for the neighborhood.
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Calling it an eyesore and embarrassment to the community, neighbors have not always been supportive of Guyton’s art.
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Originally created by local high school students, “Penny Saab” has been a long-time fixture at the Heidelberg Project.
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“It’s Getting Hot in Here” takes its inspiration from a biblical story of three boys who survived because of their faith.
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Guyton created a second version of “Noah’s Ark” after the original was destroyed by the city in 1999.
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Wearing a bright shade of pink, a Hummer SUV has been repurposed into a planter.
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Visitors come to Heidelberg Street by the busload, making it one of Detroit’s most popular destinations.
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A succession of arson attacks destroyed a dozen Heidelberg art houses, including the “Obstruction of Justice” house in May 2013.
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The “House of Soul” was a favorite of Heidelberg fans.
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The house and its vinyl decorations burned to the ground in November 2013.
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“The Party Animal House” was destroyed by arson in 2014. No one has been charged with any of the fires.
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Found objects are the basis for much of the Heidelberg Project.
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Clocks are a recurring motif around the two-block art installation.
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A small mountain of grocery carts makes up “Online Shopping.”
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Guyton’s art collection is gradually thinning out, as pieces are dismantled or moved to museums.

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Just beyond the two-block perimeter of the Heidelberg Project, one of the few remaining houses has been incorporated into the sprawling art installation.
David Kidd is a photojournalist and storyteller for Governing. He can be reached at dkidd@governing.com.
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