In Detroit, one man's artistic struggle against blight slowly goes up in smoke

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

(c) 2013, Bloomberg News.

DETROIT — For 27 years, Detroit's Heidelberg Project has stood as Tyree Guyton's visual rebellion against blight: a two-square-block dreamscape of junk sculptures, polka dots on the pavement, and vacant houses festooned with vinyl records and stuffed animals.

Now, it appears, someone is burning it down.

Arson is suspected in eight fires since May that have destroyed five buildings that anchored the art oasis on Heidelberg Street, which draws curiosity seekers from around the world. The latest blaze, on Dec. 8, destroyed ''Clock House,'' a vacant house decorated with painted clocks.

"You can't ignore that someone is targeting this," said Donald Dawkins, a spokesman for the city's office of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which put up a $5,000 reward for tips leading to those responsible. "The question is why and who."

''We are getting tips and we are going to try to run down every lead,'' Dawkins said, adding that the ATF is working with the Detroit Fire Department's investigators.

The fires have upset many in the international art world who respect Guyton, 58, and his work, said Reed Kroloff, director of the Cranbrook Academy of Art in suburban Bloomfield Hills.

"It's a piece of art that has transcended its physical location," Kroloff said. The fires are "clearly the work of a very disturbed set of minds."

''Why destroy a perfectly innocent piece art that's taken years and years to build and brought great joy to its neighborhood?''

Guyton has weathered conflict before: Two previous mayors ordered parts of the project, which he began in 1986 at 3600 Heidelberg Street in the northeastern part of the city, bulldozed. This year's arsons have claimed ''Clock House'' and other houses named ''Obstruction of Justice,'' ''House of Soul,'' ''Penny House'' and the ''War House.''

Three houses turned into artwork now remain on streets where people still live and visitors stroll among an amalgam of dolls and stuffed animals, old tires, vacuum cleaners, and other castaways that are turned into strange sculptures. A sport-utility vehicle appears half buried to form a large flower pot, a tree growing from its roof and grass and flowers under its hood.

The Heidelberg Project springs up amid a devastated city. Detroit's population has fallen to about 700,000 from a peak of about 1.8 million. Many blocks present an allee of vacant houses, their windows shattered and doors yawning open. Other areas are reverting to meadowland. Abandoned factories and offices pockmark its 139 square miles (360 square kilometers).

Arson is a fact of life: An average of 30 fires are reported daily, 60 percent among the city's 70,000 vacant buildings, according to state- appointed Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr. To save money, officials last year closed 25 of 67 fire stations.

In the wake of its record $18 billion bankruptcy filing, creditors are examining every municipal asset, including city-owned works in the Detroit Institute of Arts. New York-based Christie's has assessed them for possible liquidation. They are worth $452 million to $866 million.

The possibility that the institute would sell masterpieces by Picasso, van Gogh and Bruegel led to an international outcry and a $500 million fundraising effort.

Meanwhile, the art on Heidelberg Street is slowly going up in smoke.

Among the few visitors Tuesday in the blustery cold was Audrey Johnson, 56, who grew up in the War House. Her brother, the late soul singer Wilson Pickett, often visited the home, she said. Her father, Wilson Pickett Sr., enforced order in the neighborhood in the 1960s.

''This area was beautiful," said Johnson, who remembered when Guyton began the Heidelberg Project. "Everybody was family in this neighborhood."

"After people started moving out, vandalism started happening."

Guyton himself was there Tuesday, picking through the ruins of the structure that burned Dec. 8. He said he'd been advised by a lawyer not to talk to reporters.

"Plato said that Socrates would take long periods of time to be quiet," Guyton said in a brief interview, and placed a finger over his lips.

The project's website said the work is meant to "inspire people to appreciate and use artistic expression to enrich their lives and to improve the social and economic health of their greater community."

Lisa Rodriguez, Heidelberg's chief curator, said the fires are the start of a new phase, transforming a project that will continue for decades — and possibly rehabilitating those who set it ablaze.

"The fires were destructive, but this is a time for rebirth," she said.

Asked whether he agreed with Rodriguez, Guyton nodded.

bc-detroit (TPN)