As a native Detroiter, I often marvel at the complexities of my beloved City. Historically, Detroit is a city of originality giving birth to the auto industry, the civil rights movement, great music, great art and culture and so much more. While I was aware of Detroit's history on some level, I like most Detroiters, took our history for granted, least to say anything about new history in the making.
The day my life changed was in June 1993 when I took a (seemingly) wrong turn down Heidelberg Street on Detroit's East Side, arguably one of the least desirable areas in Detroit. As I turned the corner, I remembered thinking to myself, "what in the he...was this person thinking. Here was a street littered with everything from A-Z, discarded materials painted with bright colors systematically arranged on abandoned houses, vacant lots, the street, the sidewalks and even the trees. It was positively dizzying. I had never seen anything like it -- even in books. Curious by nature, my first thought was I had to know what this "thing" was all about, so I rolled down my car window and inquired. Unbeknownst to me, the man of whom I inquired was indeed the creator this "thing" and suggested I get out of my car to take a closer look.
Initially hesitant -- I mean this was the poor eastside for goodness sake -- I got out and took a cautious stroll. I could not for the life of me understand what this man was trying to say or do and I certainly didn't consider it art. The artist joined me and asked me to sign his guestbook. Was he kidding, really, a guestbook? He then began to question me. His interrogation was annoying: "What's your name? What do you do? How do you give back to your community?" We stood talking for about an hour, and just as I was ready to leave he autographed a postcard, invited me back and walked me to my car. I graciously thanked him but as I drove away, I was pissed. How dare he ask me how was I giving back to the community -- at least I was a taxpayer. Still, his question got me to thinking and left an indelible impression somewhere deep within.
When I got back to work, I looked at the postcard. It was a haunting image of an old house with broken baby doll parts affixed to every part of the structure. It was called Baby Doll House, destroyed in 1991, and it was signed by Tyree Guyton.
In the next six months, I went back to Heidelberg Street many times and brought other people just for the shock of it. Tyree had become accustomed to my visits and one day out of the blue, he asked me if I would help him. I politely told him no. "I have no idea what you're doing so how can I help you," I replied. He asked if he could show me something. He pulls out a letter from the Oprah Winfrey Show dated sometime in 1992. As it turned out, Tyree Guyton had appeared on Oprah the year before and the letter was inviting him back.
Apparently, the first time he appeared on the show it didn't go well. Tyree said he was told the show was going to be about neighborhood attractions but when he got there it was actually about community nuisances. He told me that after the show in the greenroom, Oprah told him that she thought he was very poetic. Oprah must have had some misgivings about the show and invited him back for redemption but Tyree said his attorney declined on his behalf. He then pulled out other letters from places all over the world. When I asked him who was responding to the letters, he replied, "no one."
Around November of 1993, I blew the dust off an old computer and typed my first response for Tyree Guyton. It was a letter to a German admirer. And so began my journey with the Heidelberg Project.
That was 20 years ago and I can honestly say that I am having the ride of my life. Over time, I began to realize that the Heidelberg Project provided a unique atmosphere for discussion on the harsh realities of Detroit. Tyree's urban interventions have opened up dialogue on many of the hard questions Detroit faces such as racism, segregation and poverty that have left deep wounds in the spirit of its people. Tyree says, "You can't heal the land until you heal the minds of the people. True to its history, the Heidelberg Project is an "original" and it is history in the making!