From Shambles to Street Art: Detroit’s Heidelberg Project

What is the Heidelberg Project?

What is the Heidelberg Project? Detroit sign

What is the Heidelberg Project?

I cannot describe the Heidelberg Project’s background any better than it is described on its website, so will share that history here:

In 1986, artist Tyree Guyton returned to Heidelberg, the street where he grew up on Detroit’s East Side, and found it in shambles, riddled with drugs and deepening poverty. Bruised by the loss of three brothers to the streets, Guyton was encouraged by his grandfather to pick up a paintbrush instead of a weapon and look for a solution.

Armed with a paintbrush, a broom and neighborhood children, Guyton and Grandpa began by cleaning up vacant lots on Heidelberg Street. From the refuse they collected, Guyton transformed the street into a massive art environment. Vacant lots literally became “lots of art” and abandoned houses became “gigantic art sculptures.” Guyton not only transformed vacant houses and lots, he integrated the street, sidewalks and trees into his mammoth installation and called the work, the Heidelberg Project (“HP”).

My daughter and I headed out to see this art collection for ourselves on a bitterly cold Saturday afternoon in Detroit. Not knowing what to expect, we thought we’d drive down the street and take a look. But as soon as we saw the festival of colors and painted houses, we knew we needed to get out of the car and explore.

What Does the Heidelberg Project Look Like?

What does the Heidelberg Project look like?

Street view of the Heidelberg Project

What does the Heidelberg Project look like? painted house

Painted houses

It was freezing cold, but we had to. Learn from us and try to go on a warmer day. You’ll want to spend hours there! It’s hard to take it all in. Everywhere you look, there is another eye-catching pile of rubbish to decipher. There were Dali-esque clocks all over the place. We tried to make sense of them. Were they all depicting the same time? No. Were they representative of events there? We didn’t know.

We later learned that the clocks are reflective of Plato’s quote that, “Time is the moving image of reality.”  Tyree Guyton explains in a short video that we must create our own realities out here in the real world. The clocks pay homage to this idea.

I’d read that there are typically volunteers in the information booth there to help answer questions, but no one braved the cold with us that day. We had Heidelberg Street all to ourselves.

What does the Heidelberg Project look like?

Recycled art- a half-buried van at the Heidelberg Project

There were piles and piles of toys.

What does the Heidelberg Project look like?

Recycled art piles of toys at the Heidelberg Project

There were broken-down appliances shrouded in mishmash debris.

Recycled art-appliances at the Heidelberg Project

Recycled art-appliances at the Heidelberg Project

There were shoes, and rows of luggage. Broken record albums. Crosses. Car parts. Stuffed animals. A Little Free Library. Desecrated doll parts. The skeleton of a house.

Recycled art-appliances at the Heidelberg Project

Heidelberg Project – recycled art

Junk as art stuffed animals doghouse toys

The Doghouse

Dolls - Junk as art - What does The Heidelberg Project look like?

Dolls – Junk as art – The Heidelberg Project

What does the Heidelberg Project look like?

City Cab – Heidelberg Project

Street Art in Detroit

There’s no way to take it all in. And it keeps changing. Guyton talks about the power of art and how transformative it is. He has brought art to this neighborhood that might have never been noticed before. He brought the world to Detroit and they see its history and its people reflected here. What my daughter and I saw there might not be what you see when you go. As Guyton points out, we have to open ourselves to change. The Heidelberg Project keeps changing; keeps growing. It has survived 30+ years in a tough town. The people of Detroit made that happen.

What does the Heidelberg Project look like?

Detroit Police drawing

We live in a world where a lot of us are afraid to see the beauty that exists amongst chaos.

— Tyree Guyton

How does the Heidelberg Project make you feel?

If you go:

The Heidelberg Project can be found at 3600 Heidelberg Street, Detroit, Michigan.

Recommended hours are 8am – 7pm.



12 responses to “From Shambles to Street Art: Detroit’s Heidelberg Project

  1. Love this. With its inventiveness It’s hard to imagine what the place was like at the outset. To take pride in one’s neighbourhood is one thing, but to transform it slowly into an admired venue is great. When a few good people get together it’s great what can be achieved.

  2. I am continually fascinated with how art is saving communities, Juliann. And if ever there was an example of how one person’s junk can become another person’s treasure, or, in this case, art, this is it. Thanks so much for sharing. –Curt

    • I agree. It’s fantastic to see art projects like this revitalizing cities. And how protective the community becomes of that art. I saw this in my hometown of Cincinnati with its Mural Art project. It’s beautiful, tells so many stories, and so far none have been defaced. Art like this gives people pride in their communities. And it’s fascinating to see.

  3. One of the most unique things and towns I have ever seen. How do you find all of these wonderful, hidden treasures that are usually in smaller cities (or outside of big ones)? I love how colorful it is and it is quite artistic!

    • Thanks, Heather. 🙂 I find some of these by reading travel blogs like yours that convince me I need to go explore. I’ve found that many towns that aren’t ones that people think to go to have so much to offer to those that make the journey there. I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to go to Detroit!! It’s not even that far from me!

  4. I think expressive art, and recycled structures are really interesting. I think it is so wonderful to see how someone’s actions have changed the neighborhood for the better. They say those in the toughest social spots are those who have been unable to connect with those around them. Bravo to that neighborhood.

  5. THIS POST. Thank you so much for sharing the amazing story of Heidelberg. I feel like I have so many blog posts of my own waiting to be written, and this is one of them. It’s such a special place, isn’t it? I definitely think you’d get a lot out of returning when a volunteer is there. When we visited Tyree’s sister Melody was there and spoke to us for like an hour about what everything meant. Tyree and his sister and the rest of their siblings actually live in and grew up in that white house!

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