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The Heidelberg Project: Polka Dots Over Blight

The Heidelberg Project, with its Dotty-Wotty house, and Tyree Guyton are known worldwide. I’ve read about it and seen pictures but I had never visited it myself. And I‘m pretty sure my husband had never heard of it. It was time to head to the east side of Detroit and experience this outdoor art installation.

The Dotty-Wotty House at The Heidelberg ProjectTyree Guyton started The Heidelberg Project in 1986 simply by cleaning up vacant lots. Cleaning up the neighborhood led to the painting of the dots and the found art. Today, The Heidelberg Project is still evolving, almost as though it is living, growing being.

The Heidelberg Project is a Detroit-based community organization designed to improve lives and neighborhoods through art. (From The Heidelberg Project website)

We turned off of the main road onto Heidelberg Street, but we were still a few blocks from the site. The neighborhood was rundown and reminded me of the houses we tore down while working with the Motor City Blight Busters.

After another block, I could see it up ahead, the colors scream out at you. We parked and started looking around. There was an information booth with a man standing outside of it, setting up. I knew instantly that it was Tyree Guyton. I was not expecting him to be there, it was a nice surprise.

The Number HouseTyree introduced himself and asked our names and shook our hands. He then asked if we would like to purchase a map of the project that describes the houses and works in detail for $10.

I wanted to talk to him but more people kept on coming up to the booth. He was quite busy. I was surprised that there were about 20-30 other people there, I just assumed we’d be the only ones. Some seemed to be in a group. One guy, I’d say he was about 18 or 19, asked Tyree what motivated him. “Life,” was Tyree’s answer.

Stuffed animals nailed to a house in The Heidelberg Project.

My husband and I walked around, looking at the Dotty-Wotty house, The Faces in the Hood, and a house with stuffed animals nailed to it. It’s quite a surreal little block and it’s so much a part of Detroit. In fact, it’s one the top tourist destinations in the city.

There is a yard filled with vacuum cleaners that is meant to show that the city needs to clean up the blight. The gloves on the handles of the vacuums symbolize that the city officials don’t want to get their hands dirty.

The polka dots symbolize diversity. The dots are of all different colors and sizes but they are all equal. The Dotty-Wotty House shows universal harmony.

The project has created much controversy over the years, with parts of it being demolished on two separate occasions.

While we were leaving, the group and Tyree had the paint out and brushes in hand. New polka dots were about to be added to the sidewalk. It's still growing, evolving.

Covering up the blight at The Heidelberg Project.I didn’t get the same sense of joy, whimsy, or complete kitsch that I got from Hamtramck Disneyland. This is different. Tyree Guyton grew up on Heidelberg Street, he remembers the 1967 Detroit Riots, and this project grew from those experiences.

Whatever you think of the art itself, the thought behind it should be commended. It pushes people out of their comfort zones and makes them think. The organization brings communities together and is reaching out to young people. And it is uniquely Detroit.

So, what do you think? Is it art or an eyesore?

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Reader Comments (14)

i can't decide. but i think, either way, it's incredible.

August 10, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermelissa

Great idea but I am NOT sure what I think about it at this point and I am all for the arts.

August 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJamie Favreau

I saw what I thought was a Tyree car down around Midtown years ago. I've never been to the Heidelberg...I think it's time to get Tim out for a photo expedition :)

August 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDominique/Midwest Guest

It's provocative, symbolic, and creative...that says art to me. It's also generating conversation, like the one we're having here. I find people like Tyree inspiring. Would I like to live next door? Probably not.....

August 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine

While it's hard to question Tyree's passion, I've never been able to connect the dots - pun intended - with the art of the Heidelberg Project. I agree with Catherine, I would not want to live next door.

To be certain, found art isn't my thing. I'm still not sure how I'll deal with my son's kindergarden craft projects. As I look around the Heidelberg Project, I don't see an improvement from the blight that was Tyree's canvas.

Contrast Heidelberg Project with the urban beautification projects of Chazz Miller's His murals tell stories with a feast of color. They encourage area residents to take pride in their community. They inspire everyone who sees them, and yes, they are beautiful to look at.

In my opinion, the art of the Heidelberg Project picks open the scabs of our failures and reminds us how far we have to go.

Maybe my view of art is too narrow. To me the Heidelberg Project is a political protest at best.

August 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCharlie Wollborg

"Art is 'art' if the artist says it is art"... or something along those lines. I forget the exact words, but I remember a teacher saying it in a class years ago.

I respect Tyree for his passion in this project, but I personally don't relate to The Heidelberg Project. I've tried to understand and appreciate it, but it just doesn't mean anything to me. I don't see anything deeper than what is on the surface. I'm also not a fan of found art... or the blatantly eccentric.

I've struggled with my own paintings and trying to figure out how to let people know that I exist. I realize that my works might not mean anything to a lot of people, too, but there are too many stories and too many words that need to be put to canvas... even if I'm the only one who will ever see them.

Is The Heidelberg Project art? Yes, because it is art to Tyree and he created it and intended it to be art.

At the same time, The Heidelberg Project gives the impression that it was made with the sole intention to provoke while not standing on its own as art. There also seems to be an agenda, political or otherwise. L'art pour l'art (art for art's sake)? Maybe.


August 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKostandinos

Thank you all for stopping by and sharing your point of view.

I think this is the reason I had such difficulty writing this post. Most things you read about The Heidelberg Project are positive and claim how amazing and fabulous it is.

I just didn't have that reaction and I guess I didn't want to pass judgment. It's thought provoking but is that enough?

I'm in agreement with Charlie and Catherine, I wouldn't want to live next door.

Charlie and Kostandinos, thank you for saying what I was afraid to and for saying it so eloquently.

August 10, 2009 | Registered CommenterBecks Davis

Almost all good art makes a statement - whether it's political, emotional.. or for the motivation of purchase. Good art, like good marketing, needs to be memorable. And this, for sure, is memorable. If it's without statement or meaning, it may as well be a knick-knack. And if not everyone likes it, all the better.

Heidelberg, for me, symbolizes the sides of our culture we maybe don't want to face. It's ugly. It's not comfortable. It's not quite right - and I don't know if it's supposed to be lived next to. After all, it's not like Detroit doesn't have the spare land for this and a bevy of other art neighborhoods of all flavors.

Although I highly appreciate Chazz's work, without the contrast of Heidelberg it doesn't have as much meaning. There must be yin for there to be yang.

Heidelberg has highlighted internationally the plight of failed policies, racism, and urban decay as our forebears fled from every neighborhood (and continues to today) that tipped over 20 percent black; as our federal government wouldn't allow homes to be built in certain areas after the war because of the "colored" population; for realtors who paraded black mothers with kids down solid blocks so that the residents would move; selling the home in Detroit for a percentage and offering the fleeing homeowner a new shiny suburban home, making a percentage on both sides, playing off of fear for financial gain. Or insurance companies who would only restitute actual value instead of replacement value depending on the neighborhood, making rebuilding fiscally impossible. Those found items aren't just trash in this iteration to me; they're symbols of broken and betrayed dreams.

These are dark stories we need to not forget and are the reason we've knocked down abandoned houses and fought blight. There are real reasons for the depravity we see in the inner city; not justifications of bad behavior, but causes. And it's meant to make you feel a little uncomfortable to think about these things... it should.

August 11, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJeremiah Staes

You know, I kept thinking about orange houses when I considered this post...a little Googling turned up this post which draws the comparison between Object Orange and Guyton's Heidelberg, while this post talks about the Object Orange artists' goal of drawing attention to the rampant decay in Detroit by slathering houses with bright orange paint (be sure to watch the video via a link in this post).

August 11, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDominique/Midwest Guest

Sorry...forgot to include the link to the second post I mentioned with the video story about Object Orange creators. Here 'tis

August 11, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDominique/Midwest Guest

Thanks Becks for such a great view of the installation. It is art. I have not been to see, but am moved to go after reading your blog. The elements are everyday things, can be understood by all, and hit at the heart of Detroit. It's uncomfortable and begs the question of is it art, because we all understand that it sits at the precipice of poverty.

Well done Becks & Tyree.

August 11, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMarianne Johnson

I always wonder when stuff was built. The real estate records of the remaining homes on Heidelberg indicate they were built around-sometimes BEFORE-the turn of the last Century

February 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterThaddeus Buttmunch

I just took my Auntie from the London area in England to visit the Heidelberg and then the Ren Cen. I actually think she was more intrigued with the Heidelberg. She was fascinated and wanted to know more and understand the symbolism in it. We definitely appreciate its value and artist Tyree Guyton's effort. We say it is a work of art. And we have both been to the Louvre! We were impressed.

September 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKelda

I definitely would not want to live next door

August 26, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJames

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