Alleys & Ruins no. 81, Heidelberg Project (2005, Detroit, MI, 2am)

Alleys & Ruins no. 81, Heidelberg Project (2005, Detroit, MI, 2am)

I had heard about a surreal art project in the heart of Detroit’s devastated east side - another neighborhood in ruins, where abandoned or burned out homes outnumber those that are lived in. One of its residents, Tyree Guyton, decided years ago to give life to this area in the form of the dadaesque Heidelberg Project. He would reclaim empty homes, the street, trees, empty lots - it would all get a major makeover. My friend Eric and I decide to drop by, at 2am.

Wandering through, one lot is more bizarre than the other. Massive black tubing engulfs one house, the tubes entering it in numerous places. Elsewhere, a front yard has perhaps fifty vacuum cleaners lined up in rows; a jumble of old boats, nailed together, form a 20-foot high sculpture, and everything is painted, much of it in red. The heavy brush strokes have left streaks from the dripping paint.

The project as a piece of art is brilliant, if not oppressive and angry. However, some years ago, in an apparently shortsighted fit, the city attacked the project, bulldozing most of it. Plenty remains however, and Mr. Guyton keeps on adding.

I’m looking at oil drums painted over with the word GOD when I notice that the same car has driven by several times, and it’s not a cop. I’m feeling nervous – at night, this truly is a dangerous place and maybe its time to go. Eric wants me to take my camera out and take pictures, but I’m saying that’s a bad idea – I’ve survived 15 years of shooting alleys at night because I can draw the line somewhere.

Then I see the dollhouse… It’s just too much to believe, and the lighting is perfect. And I think “Oh no. Now I have to take my camera out.”

I quickly set up. It’s a 25-minute exposure, and I can’t waste time. Somewhere in the middle of the exposure, gunfire erupts. Eric and I look at each other and grimace. What we are doing here is nuts, but I have to finish the exposure.

The same car drives around for a fourth time, the driver studying us and the equipment. And in the distance, bullets are still being fired.

I look at my watch: 23 minutes. Good enough, I tell Eric. We jump in the van and take off.

Check out the amazing Heidelberg Project - it is worth a daytime visit if you find yourself in Detroit.

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