News broke earlier this month that Detroit artist Tyree Guyton is going to systematically dismantle the Heidelberg Project. Over the years I’ve taken several visitors to Guyton’s found art installation, which sprawls across several blocks in the neighborhood in which he grew up. Guyton painted the street and sidewalks and smothered abandoned houses with clothing, appliances, children’s toys. I’ve written in the past that the unknowable histories of these once-loved everyday objects have a way of driving home the awesome magnitude of what has happened to Detroit.
Guyton’s work always seemed a fitting symbol of Detroiters’ ingenuity in the face of ever-increasing urban disinvestment, and a good counterpoint to the hype that tends to surround the (mostly) white, (mostly) recent transplants among Detroit’s arts scene.
“After 30 years, I’ve decided to take it apart piece-by-piece in a very methodical way, creating new realities as it comes apart,” Guyton told the Detroit Free Press. “I gotta go in a new direction. I gotta do something I have not done before.”
Last fall, I helped install a small garden on this lot, in the site of a recently-demolished house. We noticed at the time that the dirt was especially compacted and difficult to work with. Pretty clear why now–when city contractors returned to take down the abandoned house next door, they flattened the rubble (and our garden) with this machine here.
A friend of mine, the Fenkell and Dexter Community Coalition, and the Motor City Horsemen organize monthly horse rides and gardening workshops on this corner in Central Detroit. The goal is to build community and put vacant land–of which Detroit has 20 plus square miles–to good use.
I got back last week from a trek out into the California redwoods to visit my brother. He’s a teacher at an outdoor education school, where students spend a week exploring the forest and Pacific coast as a state-mandated part of fifth grade curriculum.
Aside from seeing my baby bro all grown up and kicking ass in a highly challenging job, it was a cool policy to see in action. Here in 2016, us humans are growing more aware of the damage we’re doing to the natural world. But we’re also regaining our awareness of the benefits of being connected to it. Studies have found, for instance, that tree density is correlated with human health, and that nature walks mitigate ruminative thoughts. In California, I was surprised to see how much ten-year-olds (many of them who lead pretty difficult lives back home, including the kid silhouetted against the sea anemone in this photo) were connecting. They absorbed themselves in plucking edible plants from the forest floor, writing in journals under giant trees, and turning over rocks to find hermit crabs.
I had thought today’s kids would already be too cool for this by fifth grade, but no: my brother joked that he and his fellow teachers measure their performance each week according to the proportion of kids crying at the end of it. So maybe more of school should happen outdoors, no?
Keeping watch like F. Scott’s blue eyes.
“They only put these in certain areas,” one resident of the neighborhood I work in told me. It’s not the first quasi-conspiratorial take on the city’s three casinos that I’ve heard in my time in Detroit. Whether or not MGM Grand’s intentions are sinister, billboards do tend to appear near highways and Detroit’s highway system (including the John C. Lodge expressway this billboard overlooks) was designed to specifically bludgeon poor and black neighborhoods. As Thomas Sugrue writes in The Origins of the Urban Crisis:
Detroit’s highway planners were careful to ensure that construction of the new high-speed expressways would only minimally disrupt middle-class residential areas, but they had little such concern for black neighborhoods, especially those closest to downtown. Instead, they viewed inner-city highway construction, in Detroit as in other major American cities, North and South, as ‘a handy device for razing slums.’
I wrote a few years back about the dubious pastime that is gawking at the behemoth ruins of abandoned Detroit factories and skyscrapers. It often seems to reduce the city to a sort caricature of itself, or draw attention to the spectacle of Detroit’s plight and not the substance.
But standing in front of a ruined house feels different. It’s hard not to wonder about whose one-time home you’re looking at, when it burned down, what kids sat on that upturned couch, what cartoons they watched. You gain an intimate sort of access to one family’s history, the remnants of countless stories that are now strewn as debris across a front lawn.
And when you contemplate how many iterations there are of this history, you might begin to sense the overwhelming magnitude of what has happened to Detroit. Detroit once had two million residents. After decades of suburbanization and deindustrialization, Detroit’s population is only a third of what it was at its peak. The city now has 84,000 blighted properties, according to city officials. Detroit’s population began to decline in the 1950s, but one of every three houses has been foreclosed on just since 2005.
This city was once the symbol of how American industrial capitalism could deliver a comfortable living to a wide swath of the nation’s people. Legions of auto factory workers with no advanced counted themselves among the American middle class. Many of them lived in homes like these.