THE BLOG

Fire at Heidelberg

05/23/2013 02:46 pm ET | Updated Jul 23, 2013

As you may have heard by now, a prominent art installation on Heidelberg Street, the Obstruction of Justice House, burned almost entirely to the ground on May 3, 2013. As soon as we were able to catch our breath, we issued a press release and were floored by the responses we received from all over the world. Honestly, we had no idea that the Heidelberg Project touched so many people. Just days later, it was confirmed that the fire was an act of arson. Here's the short of it:

On May 8, 2013, we received a phone call from a young woman who lives in the community stating that she knew who set the fire. Of course we believed her because she was one of the official "Kids of Heidelberg" back in the '90s. The person she named is someone we suspected, as a few weeks prior Tyree had caught him breaking into a vehicle. Very few people stand up to the wayward youth in the community but Tyree did. The upside of this story is that the young woman who revealed the name of the guilty stated, "We love Tyree; I used to paint on Heidelberg Street when I was a kid and we are not going to let [the accused] get away with this." This is classic Community Justice at work and gives us great relief knowing that it was not some random act.

Many of the young folks in our community experience a life that is at times inhumane. I remember a young man incarcerated at a prison where I volunteered saying to me, "There were eight houses on my block and five of them were crack houses. I grew up thinking that this was what life was all about." While in jail, he discovered a talent for writing poetry. He is one of our redeemed and recently held his wedding on Heidelberg Street. Today, he is doing well. This potential was one of the primary reasons for the creation of the Heidelberg Project. Through this work, we expose young people to all facets of art and they have a chance to meet people from around the world. Armed with these tools, they can make better choices. We do our best, but the problem is obviously bigger than us.

As I was thinking about this, I received an email alert, "The only fire that matters is the one you have set in the imagination of tens of thousands of us around the country and the world..." -Brett Egan (Kennedy Center)

That profound message shook me out of a sadness that had begun to dominate my thoughts. From Brett's message, I recalled Tyree saying that we were not to be deterred and that the fire was only a temporary distraction to propel us to yet another height. He exhibited a surreal and calm demeanor since the time we first got the call. Surely, we've had many ups and downs throughout our 27-year journey, including two demolitions by the city of Detroit. However, Brett's comment and Tyree's reaction reminded me that we are not so interested in preserving external things as much as we're interested in preserving and resurrecting the human spirit. I am sure that the young man who set the fire had no idea his actions would elicit such reactions, and I cannot help but wonder how he is feeling. What's going on inside of his head? How might this change his life? It remains to be seen.

On Sunday May 19, I spent the afternoon on Heidelberg Street. I watched as Tyree, residents and visitors from around the world were somehow drawn closer together as a result of the fire. Four women were working alongside Tyree with a fierce determination helping to clean up the grounds of the Obstruction of Justice House. Others seemed to be in a trance as they watched Tyree and the women in action. Then, there were other people strolling up and down the street just taking in the Heidelberg Project experience. All of this was taking place in a most unlikely place -- an urban ghetto! I like to call it our Ghetto Guggenheim, an outdoor museum in which all people are on equal ground. It was fascinating to watch and it will be even more fascinating to see what new creation rises out of the ashes.

In this place called Heidelberg Street, I felt a sense of social responsibility that beautifully demonstrated how we are all connected. If it took an act of arson to bring us a step closer to realizing the importance of our humanity, then I say burn baby, burn! And to the arsonist I say, your actions were meant to cause harm but in reality you have ignited a fire in the human spirit that cannot be extinguished.

We invite you to support our efforts to reclaim the canvas and create a new vision of community art. Please visit our plans for renewal at http://igg.me/at/reclaimthecanvas and if you are able, be generous! Onwards & Upwards!