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The Heidelberg Project isn't going anywhere — it's evolving


For a while now, conversation has been buzzing about the possible closing and removal of the long-standing Heidelberg Project, an "outdoor art environment" within a Detroit-based community. Jenenne Whitfield, president and CEO of the Heidelberg Project, wants people to know that the project isn't actually going anywhere - it's evolving.

Jenenne Whitfield standing in front of colorful painting
Credit Katie Raymond / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Jenenne Whitfield, president and CEO of the Heidelberg Project.

The project has existed for 33 years, going on 34. It’s located in the McDougall-Hunt neighborhood on Detroit's East side, on Heidelberg street. It arrived during a time when there was “no talk about artists, certainly no talk about place making, and no talk about an artist taking over a community, so to speak,” said Whitfield. 

On the Heidelberg Project NOT closing: 

Whitfield says that visitors and fans of the Project have been worried about its removal, often asking ‘Is this really coming down?’ Tyree Guyton, the artist originally behind the project, fields that question regularly. 

“[Guyton] has to answer that and hear that everyday on the site. And there’ve been people who’ve been in tears. [Many are] saying [something] like ‘this is the only thing that feels unique to Detroit, why is it going away?’ We have to try to explain it’s not," said Whitfield. 

"The Heidelberg Project has had lots of challenges and controversies and struggles but what’s phenomenal about is that it’s still standing today. It’s the artist’s decision now to move the project to a new level which we’re calling Heidelberg 3.0.," said Whitfield. 

On the Heidelberg 3.0:

This new vision is organic and not a planned development. What was created 33 years ago by one man, Tyree Guyton, is evolving into an arts community, impacted by many artists, stakeholders and residents within the neighborhood. Whitfield expressed that people are attracted to that energy. 

"The transition of the Heidelberg Project, or the taking apart of the project, is a very thoughtful process, where he [Tyree] is literally going through all of the different works and installations on the project and carefully looking at whether they can be saved, whether they should be put in a dumpster, whether it can go to a museum," said Whitfield. 

"The idea is that if you create something visually stimulating and funky on the outside, and on the inside it serves a purpose. For example, inside the numbers house, there will be an artist residency and space to work with kids in the Heidelberg Arts and Leadership Academy. One house becomes two," said Whitfield.

Whitfield explains, that they will be removing "many of the long standing art sculptures that have been on site, to get those placed in museums and galleries, maybe sell some of them, and now take the project to the next level by literally creating these art houses. Like the city of Detroit is transforming and changing and evolving, so are we. That makes us more relevant than ever." 

On the audience:

Walking alongside painted clocks nailed to trees, mountainous piles of shoes, abandoned hubcaps, and brightly colored houses, people from out of town were guided by a Google search to the Heidelberg. 

Sophie Lee, from Chicago, explained, “I think it’s really cool that there’s art that’s super accessible in the open and that it’s a community project with a focus on community building and uplifting through art. I think that’s a really good way to bring people together.”

"We keep a guest book. There are 196 countries in the world and we’ve had visitors from over 144 sign our guest book. What we have is an internationally recognized project, art environment, that has touched people all over the world,” said Whitfield.

On the location: 

"The Heidelberg Project is all about community. It’s an outdoor community art environment. The project is not just there to make a statement, it is there to provide a resurgence for this neighborhood, and for this community," Whitfield said. "It belongs where it is. [...] When we’re successful with demonstrating how to transform this community into an arts community it can literally serve as a blueprint for other urban cities, or neighborhoods, around the country and the world.

"We’ve always wanted to have our headquarters on Heidelberg street, we just haven’t been able to. We bought this building, and it’s a beautiful building, and it’s like a campus. We have a building, we have a house, and we have six lots, that’s going to allow us to activate this area more. If we could’ve been here ten years ago, this is where we would’ve been. 

 “It’s time now to really invest and watch this project really unfold and let it serve as the blueprint for a neighborhood development that I think our communities are needing.” 

On people who live in the houses on Heidelberg Street:

According to Whitfield, the oldest resident is Irma Hollingsworth at 107. She lives right next door to the Dotty Wotty house. 

On the opening of the new headquarters:

People are inside now, painting and getting the space ready, but the official opening is August 1st.

For more information on how to get involved visit their website.

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