Detroit’s iconic Heidelberg Project to be dismantled

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit—The Heidelberg Project, the iconic outdoor art installations on Detroit's east side for three decades, will be dismantled over the next two years, creator Tyree Guyton said Sunday.

"My lips are sealed," Guyton said beyond acknowledging that the internationally famous, grassroots nonprofit is evolving while rearranging some of the works on Heidelberg Street on Sunday. "I'd prefer you to talk to the world," by which he meant visitors to the project, who number about 200,000 annually to the two-block area of Guyton’s childhood neighborhood near Mount Elliott and Mack.

Guyton would say nothing more. The dismantling of the artwork was first reported Sunday in the Detroit Free Press.

But in 1986, the idea was to bring people together. Even as residents called his artifacts junk, leading then-Mayor Coleman A. Young to proclaim the installations weren’t art, national magazines took note, saluting the work as fresh and vital. Galleries, including the Detroit Institute of Arts, invited Guyton to show his work.

John Fullmore has lived on Ellery, across the street from the Heidelberg Project since 1965.

"It didn't bother me then," Fullmore said, referring to the project's creation, "and it doesn't bother me now."

"Look around," said his son Anthony Fullmore from his dad’s front porch. "All the grass is cut," a contrast to other lots nearby. "There's no problems."

Fullmore, who said he became familiar with plans for the dismantling at a neighborhood meeting, said he heard the project was trying to shrink its footprint and become more "green."

The Fullmores recalled a different time in the neighborhood, when black-owned businesses were on almost every block. In the decades since, those businesses have left, buildings torn down or burned down.

Then, the public art project featuring discarded items left by former residents – dolls, record albums, rusted bikes, clocks and stuffed animals and colorful polka dots – popped up right across the street, drawing attention from around the world.

"If I could have it back (the way it was), I'd go back," Anthony Fullmore said. "But this is positive. I've met people from all over the world."

The project has survived about 12 suspicious fires dating to May 2013, attempts to demolish it over the years and scrutiny and threats by the city to seize properties for unpaid taxes. The fires at the various houses that make up the project drew an online effort to raise $50,000 for more security at the site. The nonprofit challenged the tax bills and won on appeal for eight of the properties.

The Heidelberg Project didn't take shape in its current form overnight and dismantling it won't take place overnight, said Dan Lijana, spokesman for the project. But it's changing with each passing day.

"Every day (Guyton) is taking something out, he's making something new," Lijana said.

Lijana said he's been at the project three of the last four days. In that time, he's met people from as far away as China, Belgium, Germany, Atlanta, Royal Oak "and three houses down."

Lijana said Guyton has told him there will always be a footprint of the project, just not as people have known over the years.

People like Pegi Marshall. The 44-year-old has been coming to the Heidelberg Project since she was a 15-year-old Cass Tech student.

"It allowed me to explore different possibilities and push beyond the boundaries," Marshall said Sunday after thanking Guyton for the inspiration.

Marshall took guest Judy Parchment of Leeds, England, for a tour.

"The commitment is outrageous," Parchment said of Guyton's 30-year labor of love. "I see fun and purpose here."

Sunday was Gary and Ruth Ann Fett's first time seeing the Heidelberg Project in person. The Fetts, each 70 years old, from Hamburg Township had heard about the project, but learning that its form would evolve in the years to come was the motivation they needed to see it now.

Approaching from Elba, they didn't think much of it.

"At first I thought 'it's not much,' or 'it's a bit bizarre,'" Gary Fett said.

Ruth Ann Fett, who takes pride in her home garden, thought about volunteering to spruce the area up.

But the more they walked the grounds, the more impressed they became with the project.

One question the couple had: Where do all the materials come from?

Guyton told them: "All over the world."

When he resurrected his installations after the city demolished the Heidelberg Project in 1991, Guyton said the difficulties had made him stronger.

“We’ll go on doing what we do,” he said in 1992. “With the trust we have in the Almighty, things will turn out right.”