'The beauty of the ordinary': CBS morning show features Detroit's Heidelberg Project

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — The Heidelberg Project, Detroit's popular and longstanding neighborhood art installation on the east side, was featured on "CBS This Morning."

The feature was part of the show's #AmericanWonders series. As host Gayle King described it, American Wonders is about "exploring the places that make America wonderful." 

"This morning, we're showing you a neighborhood in Detroit that refuses to be forgotten," King said. "It fell victim to economic hardship and urban decay decades ago, and most residents just moved away. But one man, one guy, saw beauty in what was left behind. Now his artwork attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year."

That man, of course, is Tyree Guyton, who created The Heidelberg Project in 1986 with his father. 

"What once was discarded trash has been reimagined, repurposed, as art," said correspondent Adriana Diaz. "If a junkyard had a fever dream, it might look something like this.

"People will probably come here and think this is a junkyard," Diaz said.

"That's OK," Guyton said. 

More:The Heidelberg Project, at home

Guyton told CBS that he was 9 years old when his grandfather gave him a paintbrush and "said that the world is my canvas."

The story traces the decline of the neighborhood to the aftermath of Detroit's 1967 riots, which started on the city's west side but impacted all corners of the city.

"I can see the ghosts of the people who used to live here," Guyton said. 

"When those people moved out, the things they left behind were the objects that once filled their lives," Diaz said.

"So I decided to gather those things up and create this magic," Guyton said.

The outdoor art installation, created almost 20 years after the riot, is on the 3600 block of Heidelberg, south of Mack and west of Mount Elliott on Detroit's east side.

Twice, the project has been bulldozed by the city of Detroit, and in more recent years it was ravaged by a dozen fires.

There was talk of dismantling the project in 2016, but three years later it still stands. 

Diaz reports there is a "proposal at city hall" to turn the area into a "vibrant artists' village."

Dan Lijana, a spokesman for Heidelberg, said that Guyton has "taken down a significant amount of the work" in recent years, as Heidelberg proceeds toward its "3.0" vision.

A concept plan for 'Heidelberg 3.0'

This will entail acquiring "a significant number of properties" in the neighborhood that are currently owned by the Detroit Land Bank. 

"For an arts nonprofit, it's a high bar to clear to show you have an economic plan," Lijana said.

Alyssa Strickland, a spokeswoman for the Detroit Land Bank Authority, said negotiations with Heidelberg about it acquiring 29 land bank properties are "in a holding pattern." The authority says the terms of a September 2018 conditional zoning agreement with the city requires Heidelberg to remove installations from land bank properties before negotiations can begin.

"We can't move forward without that," Strickland said.

Lijana said, though, that The Heidelberg Project "has lived up to the terms of the agreement," adding that the removals requested "have been done for months."

Beyond the land itself, Heidelberg is looking for technical assistance from the city in shaping that plan.

"No one is asking for any finances, just a willingness to support" the vision, Lijana explained.

"As the city is kind of having this new life, so to speak, so is The Heidelberg Project," said president Jenenne Whitfield, who is also Guyton's wife. 

"At first it does look kind of junky," King said after Diaz's piece. "But it just shows you the beauty of the ordinary."