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Stir It Up: 30 years of the Heidelberg Project



Last week artist Tyree Guyton mentioned that he'd passed by his Heidelberg Project site on the way to a meeting with his wife and myself, and he'd seen a group of people that he thought were from China there. Now we're talking about walking around outside on a cold morning in freezing temperatures to view the installation spread over a two-block area. But I guess if you came all the way from China a little thing like cold isn't going to stop you from seeing what you came to see. Besides, it's Heidelberg Project Month in the state of Michigan; how can you miss that?

Apparently it can be very easily missed. I would guess that most people in Detroit don't know about it. A little Google search for Heidelberg Project Month reveals the only media mentioning it are the Heidelberg's own website and Twitter account, and a like from the state of Michigan. Nothing of this seems to have appeared in the media, and there was no "Amen" on the resolution from the mayor or city council.

That's the way it's been for the Heidelberg Project these past 30 years, which has had to weather times of outright hostility from the city (it's been bulldozed twice), as well as suffering a series of debilitating arsons a few years ago. This is despite, as the state House resolution says, drawing 275,000 visitors each year as the third most visited cultural site in Detroit. At this point the city response seems to be mainly benign neglect.

"It has flourished without any real city support to help us advance, that broader support that has always been missing," says Jenenne Whitfield, Guyton's wife and the Heidelberg's executive director.

Now the Heidelberg Project is taking another turn that has people scratching their heads. A few months ago the project board announced that Guyton would be dismantling the installation piece by piece over the next couple of years. That garnered headlines. "Detroit's iconic Heidelberg Project to be dismantled," The Detroit News announced.

During a conversation with Whitfield and Guyton, they explained that the Heidelberg Project isn't going to disappear, but that it will evolve into what they call Heidelberg 3.0. In addition to being a clever play on its 30th anniversary, the designation is about taking it to the next level. The vision is that of a cultural village that somewhat institutionalizes the ever evolving installation.

"Change is inevitable, and you must change with the times," Guyton says. "It's time to do something new. I'm turning the project over to Jenenne Whitfield. ... The city is changing and it's important that we change with the times. I don't want to be stuck; I want to be free. ... I want to go around and do shows around the world."

It makes sense, for 30 years Guyton and the Heidelberg have defined each other. And for a creative person it can be a heavy burden.

"We want to be the catalyst to jump-start economic development in the McDougal-Hunt community," says Whitfield, who points out that this is the last residential area of Black Bottom — Detroit's historic African-American neighborhood that coalesced as the city was blowing up with hundreds of thousands of auto assembly jobs.

One example Whitfield points out is the Soul House, a structure that was covered with numerous records and was burned in the spate of arsons. One of the goals of the 3.0 effort is to rebuild the Soul House so that it visually resembles the original on the outside, but inside it would be a music school. It's a developmental vision that seeks to "stimulate people growing from the inside out," says Whitfield. "The Heidelberg Project will never be completely erased."

Stimulating people from the "inside out" is an important point for them. Guyton began the Heidelberg in 1986 as a reaction to the blight and human desolation in the neighborhood. It has always revolved around neighborhood issues. Heidelberg 3.0 is conceived as a way of moving forward with input from community members, both native and new. They have been meeting already. Guyton and Whitfield talk about community members who have discovered their entrepreneurial spirit, one who moved back to the neighborhood from California to live in the family home where she grew up and others who have moved there because they were attracted by the Heidelberg.

"They are the ingredients that contribute to the vision," Whitfield says. "They are part of the process."

It's not just those who are already accomplished. Guyton and Whitfield talk about lighting a spark inside people who have been stunted by the struggle to just survive.

"Time has a way of teaching you what you need to know," says Guyton. "People who don't know how to fight, you have to fight for them."

And it will be a fight. The Heidelberg is not in an area the city is ready to invest major resources in. In the past year the mayor's office has announced initiatives for three neighborhoods that border on already stable areas. The main focus will be on West Village, which is next to Indian Village; the Fitzgerald neighborhood which is near the University District, and the area around Clark Park near Mexican town. They all more or less follow the pattern of the Midtown miracle, where headway was made by building around major institutions such as the Medical Center and Wayne State University.

The closest thing to a major institution near the Heidelberg Project is the Heidelberg Project, which is neither a major employer nor a commercial hub. It's not conveniently located near a freeway exit for easy access. But still people come. Whitfield argues that there has to be more than one way to do neighborhood development, and that the Heidelberg has been an example for 30 years. When you attract 275,000 people to your site each year, the next step is to find a way to keep them around a little longer and to spend some money. My own mini calculation is that if each visitor were to spend about $10 each that would be close to a $3 million infusion into the neighborhood. A few years of that kind of infusion, and reinvesting some of it back into the businesses, would make huge changes possible in McDougal-Hunt. It would also show hope and possibility to community members where there has been precious little of it.

"It's not just about money," says Whitfield. "It's about creating a healthy state of mind. These are the people that we're massaging, to help straighten up their backbone."

Detroit reached its former peak because of the auto industry. Those jobs are gone. Cars can be assembled with a fraction of the people who once made those factories hum. And at a fraction of the pay they once garnered.

"We're in the age of creativity in technology and thinking," says Whitfield.

If anything can drive vitality into the Heidelberg neighborhood, it will need plenty of creative thinking. That's the spark that began Heidelberg and that is the spark that will keep it evolving as a vital entity in Detroit.


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