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Magazine — 08.04.21

The Heidelberg Project: How Detroit Undoes Time

I spent the better part of the summer of 2018 learning and living in Detroit, Michigan. After visiting Chicago the year before, the east-coaster in me was fascinated by the culture, landscape, and lifestyle that seemed farther away than it truly is. I arrived hoping to meet the people of a city so many wanted to know. Through the reductive ruin porn and scornful writings on the Motor City’s car-centrism, I wanted to hear the stories and philosophies of Detroit. Of all the places I saw that summer, the Heidelberg Project left me with the most open-ended answers to my questions that had little to do with the purported policy and planning failures of Detroit’s history.

The Heidelberg Project is situated on the eastside of Detroit in a neighborhood called McDougall-Hunt. I approached the art environment, née installation from a van, stepping directly up to the inaugural polka dotted house. The house–tall, white, creaky-looking–was an unremarkable structure with an unforgettable outer layer. Under a gray sky and intermittent rain droplets, I set forth on my self-guided tour. Hospitality was something that I had become enamored with in the midwest. Despite the climate, the coldness I was accustomed to was rare. So, I tried it on and braved the rain. Approaching the Heidelberg Project, I knew that I knew nothing of the reality that birthed this place.

Environmental artist Tyree Guyton returned to Heidelberg Street, his childhood home, in 1986. A neighborhood cleanup with his grandfather became a burgeoning found art project that overtook the formerly-littered vacant lots. These grassy spaces have increased in number across the city as residents have chosen to relocate to nearby suburbs, neighboring cities, or warmer coasts. Abandonment is not quite the word. Although a city is made by its people, it is not always made for them. While residents have power, factors such as sustainable employment, school quality, and environmental liveability comprise a bureaucratic Goliath. Guyton’s art is a formidable arm in Detroiters’ collective slingshot.

The clocks that surrounded me at Heidelberg were all set to different times. Hanging off of trees, houses, and other large found objects, the clocks attuned me to a question with no literal answer: What time is it? It may appear as though time has scorned or forgotten Detroit. In residential areas, streets are vast and at times eerily quiet. Some neighborhoods only have enough residents to count on one hand, kept company by dauntless liquor stores and churches. Many working-class Detroiters work in suburban job centers. News articles since the 1990s have raised the glaring issue that without a car, living in the city is exhausting. Meanwhile, downtown Detroit is bursting with luxury apartments and office towers for younger, richer, and whiter workers. Whereas the motor vehicle–which was mass produced by Ford Motors in Detroit beginning in 1908–was advertised to provide mobility for all, the city erected in its image is a testament to the lies of consumerist individualism.

Capitalism alleges that time is money. Unlike the auto manufacturing workers who assembled vehicles, collected their paychecks, and built a comfortable home for their families, workers today have no end goal except perhaps easier and less dehumanizing work. There is no end in sight; more work is the reward for good work. Looking to the present disasters in Texas and across the southern U.S., it is clear once again that people and their governments are operating on disparate definitions of time. Urgency is a political matter. Governments will move swiftly and disregard their budgets if wealthy or white constituencies are suffering. The traumas of neglect, institutionalized racism, and bankruptcy, however, creep slowly and linger. Again, capitalism tells a lie. Time is inconsistent and variable.

The Heidelberg Project covers two city blocks in items that were purchased and discarded; maybe their owners still live in Detroit, maybe not. The mismatched stopped clocks reminded me that beyond a mechanism for production and convenience,  a city is a home that people choose. A home is a place to do far more than work: it is a place to rest, pray, laugh, and eat. Guyton reclaimed his childhood home and the blocks surrounding it, giving voice and purpose to the space. A purposeful home is a creative and safe one. In his website biography, Guyton is quoted, “You can’t heal the land until you heal the minds of the people.” The healing that is in order for Detroiters is not for me to say, but I could see that residents would like their city’s story to be reframed. Their city is not a cautionary tale. The Heidelberg Project shifts the conversation about Detroit from “then” to “now” to “now what?” As a space for learning and creative exploration, it does not exist to be consumed. And when consumption stops, the hustling it necessitates stops. Time stops.

As a visitor, the Heidelberg Project presented me with a more expansive lens through which to view Detroit and its cosmology. The wilds that have sprung up across the city are not space for replication, where developers from other parts of the country can transplant the latest boxy building trends. Looking to the stopped clocks, wall of abandoned shoes, and assorted weather-beaten stuffed animals, I sensed a warm and inviting anarchy. Cities are a way of governing space and thereby governing people, and Detroit has been poorly governed half a century. The city’s form and visual properties are interesting, but the people who keep it moving are working from a sacred blueprint. After all, the city tried to stop the Heidelberg Project from existing, yet it continues to provide a beautiful space for gathering and education to Detroiters of all ages. When the clock stops, profit becomes irrelevant. The question becomes, “What does the present moment inspire?”

Sophia Burns is a writer and community educator based in Philadelphia, USA. She writes about the intersections of race, class, and geography, as well as multiracial identity. Having grown up in a working-class suburb, she is interested in uplifting in-between places via the narratives of those who live there. She has been working in youth social justice education since 2015. A language lover, she speaks Spanish and Portuguese, she is currently training to teach yin yoga and enjoys being by the water.

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